By the time we reached Helmsley it was raining in good earnest. The landscape was wreathed in the misty watercolours of Turner who loved to paint in this part of the world, the streets of the little market town simply an uncompromising grey; the golden hues of the local stone, dimmed by damp, showed little of the charm for which I have always liked this place. Flowers hung heavy heads as we passed though their colours were bright in the rainwashed morning. Bare legs and umbrellas proclaimed the tourists as the locals hunkered down under hoods, well accustomed to inclement weather.
Knowing that there was a rich history associated with Helmsley we were not, it has to be said, expecting much. Abbeys and castles would ensure that the architectural history went back a good way, we knew that, but wealth tends towards ostentation and the many churches in these once-affluent old towns were renovated, unsympathetically, in the Victorian era. The first glimpse was unpromising for a town first settled some five thousand years ago.
The beak-headed carvings beneath the eaves of the roof were undoubtedly of early Norman design, but just as obvious was the fact that they were ‘new’… copies of the last couple of hundred years. The stonework of the building looked crisp and clean. The only cheerful thing was the robin… a symbol of hope in some ways. He always seems to accompany us to the best places.
There was a curious pair of gravestones under a great, spreading yew. The smaller of the two was normal sized, the other twice as big… as if a giant lay buried there. There are plenty of tales of giants in the area, but I doubted that this was one of them. The whole expedition was looking unpromising.
There was, however, a rather interesting sundial. Standard fare, of course, except that the shaft looked as if it had come from something much older and been pressed into new service. Probably a bit of the old church, I thought. We headed for the porch, half expecting it to be closed out of season anyway, and definitely expecting the standard ’corporate’ architecture and fittings of Victorian wealth.
So the doorway was a nice surprise and a glimmer of sunshine on that cold, damp morning. A beautifully carved Norman arch with the distinctive chevron patterns. There had to be something left of the older building and this was a nice find.
So was the fragment of even earlier carved fragment of a hogback stone lying inside the porch, sheltered from the eroding elements. Nothing particularly special… not considering that we had just been baulked of Viking carvings, Norse gods and strange symbols. But it was good… and it is all about the stones at present, so this too was a good thing to have found.
While I grabbed a couple of pictures, my companion wandered over to the door. Turning the big, heavy ring, I heard it yield… then silence. I turned to find him holding the door and grinning. “You might want to have a look,” he said. “You’re not going to believe this…” He stepped aside and the door swung open…