Helmsley & Hawnby…not quite Damascus

Nikolaus Pevsner describes All Saints Church, Helmsley as ‘big and self confident, in the C13 style’.

It is always a good sign when the church entrance looks like this.

Stepping into the church is a joy, there are beautiful, bright, colourful murals everywhere.

The Victorian restorers of the church not only retained elements of the earlier church, they also added to them. The beakheads and outer order of the chancel arch are modern as are many other ‘romanesque’ features both within and on the exterior of the church, Rita Wood calls them ‘Heavy handed Victorian additions’, I quite like them.

The capital on the left side of the chancel arch has three heads carved on it, one creature emitting foliage and two small human heads, one wearing a pointy cap. The capital on the right side of the arch has a tiny head carved between the angle of the volutes.

This 10th century Hogback is a bit knocked about, the motif on the top is quite a rare design to find on a Hogback, it is known as a Key Pattern.

There are two chapels within the church, the south chapel is dedicated to Columba and has an altar made of what looks like Swaledale Fossil Limestone and may have come from the quarries at Barton. The North Chapel is dedicated to Aelred and has an altar made with Frosterley Marble from Weardale.

This striking painting is in the north chapel, it’s by Gabriel Max and is called St. Veronica’s Handkerchief. When I first saw the painting, the image was of Christ with his eyes closed, when I looked again his eyes were open. I found this rather disturbing, I was raised in a strict catholic household but have been an atheist, with the odd lapse into heathendom, for the past 45yrs. Was this to be my moment of conversion? was the shepherd calling me back to the fold?…then I read the notice beside the painting … ‘was painted in the middle of the 19th century, it is a form of art with a little trick, where the eyes of christ can be seen either open or closed‘…I laughed, relieved but also feeling slightly unnerved by the experience.

On reflection, I quite like the painting, it was inspired by a miraculous handkerchief that contained a perfect image of the face of Christ. As usual with these sort of Medieval relics, there were three in existence, all claiming to be the original. I suppose most religions have to rely on some form of smoke and mirrors when it comes to dealing with the supernatural.

All Saints is a wonderful church and well worth a visit if you are in the area. The history of the district is written all over its walls often in bold bright mural form. Architecturally it has embraced and built upon its past and is currently undergoing further exterior renovations. The church is open for visitors from 9-5 daily.


Driving home I remembered that in her book, Romanesque Yorkshire, Rita Wood compared the tiny carving of a man in a pointy cap to a carving in the church at Hawnby. Hawnby wasn’t too far from Helmsley so I decided to seek it out.

The Church at Hawnby, All Saints, can be found to the west of the village on the Kepwick road. The little church sits in an overgrown churchyard down by the River Rye, the setting is beautiful. The church is picturesque but architecturally fairly unremarkable, Pevsner describes it as ‘basically Norman‘. I found the carving located just inside the church door, it is lovely. Rita Wood thinks that it probably came from the chancel arch, who knows?


The Buildings of England. Yorkshire, The North Riding. Nikolaus Pevsner. Penguin Books. 1973

Romanesque Yorkshire. Rita Wood. Yorkshire Archaeological Society. Occasional Paper No.9. 2012

Yorkshire A Gazetteer of Anglo-Saxon & Viking Sites. Guy Points. Rihtspell Publishing. 2007


I passed through this village a few weeks ago, I had never visited it before and had no knowledge of the place but it had an air of oddness about it so I made a note to return and have a poke about. A good place to start with any village is the church, god’s house often comes with parking.


The church is called St. Cuthbert and St. Mary, there were once two churches in the village, St. Cuthbert’s and St. Mary’s, the story goes that there were two sisters who refused to worship under the same roof. St. Mary’s was demolished in the nineteenth century and the names combined.  In common with most local churches dedicated to  Cuthbert it is said that the monks who carried his body rested here.

The exterior of the church is pretty but unremarkable. The church was closed, outside, beside the nave door is a section of broken stone with an indented diaper motif and a saltire cross, this has been interpreted as a possible 11th century cross shaft, I’m not sure I agree with that. Resting on the stone is another inscribed WE May 1678, this stone came from the demolished church of St. Mary’s.

The graveyard has two terraces. On the lower terrace are a group of striking rude stone memorials clustered around a large figure of christ. The stones mark the graves of the Vaux family.


The Vaux family were brewers, engineers and military men. Ernest Vaux met Robert Baden-Powell  during the South African War and the two became close friends. In 1908 Baden Powell visited Vaux in Sunderland and the pair formed the first official scout group in the world.


My grandparents were pub managers for Vaux Breweries, my first home was the Palmerston Hotel on Newport Road in Middlesbrough, a Vaux house that has long since been demolished.

History aside, what drew me to these graves was the beautiful stone that the grave markers were made from. The stone is an early carboniferous crinoidal limestone and comes from a quarry about a mile south of the village.


The Barton crinoidal limestone is a buff coloured highly fossiliferous limestone, in it’s raw state it is a beautifully tactile stone, when cut and polished the dense, visible fossil content makes it highly decorative.



There is also a link between St. Cuthbert and crinoidal limestone. There is a coastal outcrop in Northumberland and the fossilised, hollow, segments of the Crinoid stems can be found on the beaches. These bead-like fossils were collected and used to make necklaces and rosaries, the individual fossils became known as St. Cuthbert’s or Cuddy’s beads.

But fain St Hilda’s nuns would learn
If on a rock by Lindisfarne
St Cuthbert sits and toils to frame
The sea borne beads that bear his name.
Such tales had Whitby’s fishers told,
And said they might his shape behold,
And here his anvil sound:
A deadened clang – a huge dim form
Seen but and heart when gathering storm
And night were closing round.
But this, a tale of idle fame,
The nuns of Lindisfarne disclaim.

From Marmion by Sir Walter Scott

Ernst Haeckel [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I got talking to a nice bloke who was repairing the church pathway. He pointed out a couple of archways that were built into the wall across the road from the church and told me that the area is called Piper Hill and that there used to be a row of cottages and a large house all of which were demolished many years ago. He said that behind the arches there was once a fish and chip shop.


I followed the wall back to the main road to have a look at a tall sandstone structure. Apparently this was once the porch to one of the houses and also contained a dovecote. When the houses were demolished the porch was left standing and is now the smallest free-standing dovecote in England.