A DAY out to Helmsley. It’s a dank, overcast Sunday – not as cold as some recent days, but with a winter chill in the air.

The drive out – dipping and twisting along narrow lanes through Sutton, Stillington, Brandsby and Gilling East – is a joy.

Helmsley is quiet – not surprising given the time of year and the weather – and there are parking spaces in the market square.

After browsing round the shops, and popping into my favourite discount bookstore, our thoughts turn to lunch. We decided before setting out to try The Crown this time.

From the outside it has a slightly down-at-heels homeliness, appearing shabbier than its neighbour The Black Swan or than The Feathers on another side of the square. But being a journalist, I’ve perfected shabby to an art form, so this appeals.

Inside, The Crown is large and rambling. A long, narrow passage leads to a small reception hatch and then a pleasant but almost empty main dining room.

A succession of lounges and bars open off each other, each warmed by a roaring log fire. Here we find people – families and couples – tucking into what look like hearty meals. We settle in at a large, scratched pub table next to one such fire.

There is something about this place I like very much. The inside walls are half-timbered and heavy-beamed, the floorboards creak, and everywhere you go there are nooks, crannies, annexes and lobbies. So what if the place smells of cooking? You half expect, on turning a corner, to come across a battered old wardrobe that will lead you to another world.

I order a pint of excellent Black Sheep, plus a jug of water with a twist of lemon for my wife Lili. Then we sit and study the menu.

There’s a set Sunday lunch menu at The Crown – one course for £7.95, two courses for £11.95, three courses for £13.95. It includes, for starters, homemade vegetable soup with crusty bread, or goats cheese and tomato salad; for mains roast topside of beef with Yorkshire pudding, pan-fried salmon with sweet chilli sauce, or mixed pepper and mushroom risotto; for dessert chocolate brownie with ice cream or sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce.

There is also a chalked-up specials board to choose from, or a regular lounge/bar menu.

Still chilled, we opt for the soup to start in the hope it will warm us up. Lili chooses the roast loin of pork with apple sauce for her main course, while I go for the Helmsley pork sausage with bubble and squeak pattie and onion gravy from the bar menu.

The soup arrives. It is warm and nourishing, and tasty enough, but nothing outstanding. We can identify potatoes, carrots, celery, leek and onion in there, but I would have preferred it thicker. Slices of French stick come cold from the fridge rather than warm and crusty.

Lili’s pork arrives with a side dish of vegetables, which includes mashed potato, carrots and beans. The pork is very thinly sliced, tender and tasty, but Lili could have eaten more. The apple sauce is OK, the roast potatoes which accompany the pork on the plate are good, the rest of the veg average. It’s the kind of food my mother used to cook for Sunday lunch back in the 1970s.

I get three pork sausages on a bed of bubble and squeak fried into a pattie. The sausages are excellent, with rich flavours of pork, apple and herb, but they are slightly overcooked, which is a shame. The pattie is slightly disappointing. It is one of my favourite dishes, but this is bland, and it is also over-cooked to the point of being burned on one side.

We enjoy our meals, because we are hungry, the room and the log fire are great, our waitresses are friendly, and the elderly couple tucking into tea and cake at the next table are chatty. But the food could have been better.

I finish with the bread and butter pudding – which comes, the menu says, with Birds custard. The pudding is excellent, if a little sweet for my taste. It is rich and moist, without being too heavy, and liberally laced with sultanas. The custard was too sweet so I scraped this off and left it.

We finish with an individual cafetiere of good, strong coffee each. The bill, including my pint of Black Sheep, comes to just over £35.

I have mixed feelings about The Crown. I love the pub itself, with its hidden rooms and crannies and its air of slightly shabby friendliness. It’s a great place to relax and to stretch your feet out in front of an open fire after a brisk walk on the Moors. But the food really could be better.

The Crown Inn, Market Square, Helmsley. Tel: 01439 770297.

Steve and Lili visited on Sunday January 11