This woodland walk takes in the parallel valleys of Ash Dale and Riccal Dale. The fine contrast of scenery and the flora and fauna are hard to surpass.
Helmsley is a picturesque market town with many interesting buildings including four former coaching inns. The spacious square contains an ancient market cross and an imposing memorial to William, the Second Earl of Feversham, who was killed in the Battle of the Somme in 1916.
Sited about one mile south-west of Helmsley lies Duncombe Park, the family home of the Fevershams. Built in 1713 it is set amidst rolling parkland overlooking the river Rye. Following the death of the Second Earl, it was leased as a preparatory school for girls. In 1986 the present Lord and Lady Feversham decided to return and turn it into a family home once again. The house and gardens have since been restored to their former glory and are open to the public. The 450 acres of parkland, much of which is designated a national nature reserve, contain many ancient trees and a wealth of wildlife.
Closer to the town are the spectacular ruins of Helmsley Castle, which testify to its former strength and impregnability. It stands on a rocky outcrop above the river Rye surrounded by huge earthworks. The first castle on this site was built by Walter l’Espec in the early twelfth century and was a timber structure. Some sixty years later this was replaced by a stone castle, which was added to and strengthened throughout the Middle Ages.
A formidable fortress, the castle saw little action until the Civil War which brought about its destruction. In 1644 Sir Jordan Crosland, of Helmsley, defended it for the King. He held out against 1000 troops under Sir Thomas Fairfax in a three months’ siege, before surrendering honourably, ‘due to lack of food’. After this Cromwell ordered the defences of the castle to be destroyed, rendering it useless in any future conflicts.
Leaving Helmsley we follow a clear path through the fields to the beautiful wooded valley of Riccal Dale. Bluebells and primroses make a stunning display in the spring. During the summer common sorrel, lady’s bedstraw, meadow cranesbill silverweed and tormentil follow on, and the rare chickweed wintergreen has also been recorded, earning Riccal Dale the title ‘the valley of the flowers’.
Our route continues along the woodland margins to the abandoned Rea Garth Farm, where a monkey puzzle tree towers above the buildings. Monkey puzzle trees, introduced from South America, were very popular in Victorian times. The name came about in 1834 when Charles Austin, attended a tree planting ceremony in Cornwall. After touching the spiny foliage he said, ‘That tree would puzzle a monkey.’ The name stuck.
From Rea Garth we pass through open fields and descend to a clearing by the river Riccal. The earliest form of Riccal in the Domesday Book is ‘Ricalf’, derived from the Norse ‘Rye graine’ meaning ‘a branch of the Rye’. We leave the clearing and begin a steep climb out of the valley, passing (or perhaps pausing at) a seat commemorating Joe Cowton, who was a gamekeeper on the Duncombe Park Estate for 52 years.
After reaching the road we follow it to the outskirts of Carlton. This was a freeman’s village until the Norman lords of Helmsley annexed it for hunting. They enclosed the land with a fence known as the ‘park pale’ and an internal ditch. This design allowed deer to leap into the park but the extra height on the inside made it difficult for them to escape. The ‘park pale’ was pulled down in 1799.
A wide track from Carlton delivers us into Ash Dale which has been covered with trees since the sixteenth century or earlier. However, none of the present trees are so old, as the woods have been regularly harvested and replanted throughout the centuries. Conifers and hardwoods such as beech are mixed with broadleaves like ash, hazel, sycamore and oak which are more typical of the original woodland. Ash Dale is a precious haven for plants, birds, insects and small mammals. During spring and summer the descent through the valley provides an opportunity to identify many wild flowers; bluebell, lady’s mantle, primrose, purple vetch, rosebay willow herb, wood anenome and wood forget-me-not.
On leaving the woodland we continue via lush meadows and after a few minutes we are back in Helmsley.