It’s often referred to as the ‘gateway to the moors’ and, if you’ve ever driven along the southern edge of the North York Moors National Park, you’ll have passed through the outskirts of Kirkbymoorside.
Its near neighbours, Helmsley and Pickering, are tourist magnets and the picture postcard village of Hutton-le-Hole, home to the fantastic Ryedale Folk Museum, is just a couple of miles away, yet most visitors seem to bypass Kirkbymoorside – as I’ve been guilty of doing on countless trips.
It is one of the reasons why Kirkbymoorside remains a well-kept secret off the busy A170.
Those who do make the effort to turn off towards the town centre are clearly ‘in the know’ because the Market Place has heaps of character and there’s an impressive selection of around 40 independent shops, cafes and boutiques.
In and around the Market Place, you’ll find everything from Bella Bambino, a stylish children’s wear boutique, to S Waind & Sons, a traditional, family owned butcher’s shop that has been serving the local community since 1882. Throw in a smattering of antique shops, a selection of interiors and homeware stores, and it’s clear that Kirkbymoorside still thrives as a shopping centre.
It was in 1254, when the town received a Royal Charter allowing it to hold a market, that it really began to establish itself as a prosperous centre of trade, drawing in custom from the surrounding rural areas.
The market transforms the town centre into a hive of activity every Wednesday. The wide cobbled streets of the town centre are lined with a variety of striking buildings, from elegant Georgian townhouses to cottages that look like they belong in the pages of Country Living magazine.
Overlooking the Market Place are two of the town’s oldest coaching inns; The Black Swan dates back to 1634 and has an eye-catching half-timbered porch and the George and Dragon Hotel is a timber, cruck-frame building that can trace its origins back even further.
Like Helmsley and Pickering, Kirkbymoorside once had a castle, but only fragments of it remain today. Once home to the influential Neville family, it was known as Neville Castle. Parts of the ruins were excavated during the 1960s and 70s, uncovering a complex series of buildings and modifications. This exploration revealed that a timber frame hall occupied the site until the end of the 15th century and that it was then replaced by a collection of stone buildings around a courtyard.
If you take the path leading from the end of Castlegate, you should be able to spot the largest surviving section of the castle wall. Stone from the castle is said to have been used to build the Toll Booth in the town centre in around 1730, where people would once have had to pay their taxes. Today it’s known as the Memorial Hall.
The castle ruins are just a short distance from All Saints’ Church, which can trace its origins back to the 10th century. It’s from the church that the town takes its name, which means ‘the church at the head of the moors’, although many locals affectionately refer to it as ‘Kirkby’.
The present church is mainly of Norman origin, although additions were made during the 15th and 19th centuries. An even earlier timber church is said to have been destroyed by Viking raiders and fragments of the crosses that they left behind can be seen in Ryedale Folk Museum.
Ryedale Show is one of Yorkshire’s most popular annual agricultural shows and usually takes place in late July at Welburn, just outside Kirkbymoorside, although the 2021 show became a virtual event due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The town also has an unlikely place in the story of aviation. Fred Slingsby, a First World War pilot and a founding member of the Yorkshire Gliding Club, ran a factory at Kirkbymoorside. He started Slingsby Sailplanes, which became famous for its gliders, back in the 1930s. The company turned out Hengist gliders for the war effort and recreational craft during peacetime.
Kirkbymoorside is also known for its brass band, which was formed in 1815 and has won a string of accolades over the years. Band members of all ages rehearse in the Band Rooms built in 1976 on land donated by local man James Holt. A concert hall was constructed on the same site in 2019 following a community fundraising campaign.
Aside from the wealth of popular attractions in the nearby North York Moors National Park, a lesser-known place of interest in the immediate area is a mysterious cave called Kirkdalegrottan (or Kirkdale cave), which was discovered by workers from a nearby quarry in 1821.
It was found to contain the fossilised bones of a variety of exotic animals, including hippopotamus, elephants and hyenas. When they were analysed by William Buckland, the first professor of Geology at the University of Oxford, he came to the conclusion that the animal remains had been taken into the cave by hyenas using it as a den.
He argued that these animals must have lived in Britain in ancient times, but his views upset many within the Church, including the Dean of York Minster, who published a scathing rebuttal. Buckland’s work came to be considered ground-breaking and we now know that the remains found in the cave date back to the Ice Age. Some of them are on display at the Yorkshire Museum in York.
Wandering through Kirkbymoorside’s charming town centre on a quiet Sunday, it’s almost impossible to believe that hyenas could once have stalked the surrounding landscape.