For one week only, a town's heritage moves from past to present

SELBY: a town with a population of 13,000 situated on the River Ouse 12 miles south of York. Famous for its Abbey built in 1069 after St Benedict saw three swans on the river and took them to be a sign of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

The Abbey has a 14th-century window bearing the three stars and stripes coat-of-arms of the Washington family, local forebears of George Washington the first President of the United States. This emblem is said to have been the inspiration for the US national flag. King Henry I, fourth son of William the Conqueror, was born in Selby. He founded the Exchequer system and the first zoo in England.

Until the 1980s, Selby was a thriving port, despite being 60 miles from the sea. A busy first-class shipbuilding industry existed there until 1993, and the Selby Canal was one of the earliest in the country. The first railway station in Yorkshire opened in the town in 1834. It was a centre of food production with maltings, sugar refineries, mushroom factories and Fletcher's Sauce Works – where female workers were known as "Fletcher's Fairies".

Those who care about local history and heritage – and there seem to be many of them in Selby – feel that it needs a museum to tell its story to local people and to visitors they'd like to attract away from York, the overcrowded tourist honey-pot up the road.

Until 40-odd years ago, there was a museum in Park Street, established at the end of the 19th century by one of Selby's eminent Victorians, the surgeon, dermatologist, naturalist and Quaker Sir Jonathan Hutchinson, whose name is attached to no less than 14 medical conditions or entities. It was a "cabinet of curiosities" founded so that the philanthropist could share his personal passions. But by the 1970s, the museum, housed in a former mechanics' institute where Charles Dickens had apparently once given a reading, was tired and dilapidated. There had been controversy over who should pay for its upkeep and, with local government reorganisation, the new Selby District Council refused to support it. The doors closed and its contents were mostly dispersed to other museums.

"The museum group has been toiling away for 20 years, in the hope that the town would one day have its own museum again," says David Lewis, a former chemistry teacher who is now Hidden Heritage Officer for Selby, a three-year post funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund via the regeneration charity Groundwork.

Months of his time, the efforts of local voluntary groups and 500 from the Town Council have been put into creating a "pop-up" museum in a disused building in Ousegate for this week only, to canvas local support for a heritage centre as a permanent fixture in Selby. And so Town Mayor Melanie Davis declares it open. The vol-au-vents, cakes and pots of tea are ready. Artefacts have been brought back from elsewhere, personal memorabilia relating to the town's history have been borrowed, and experts are teed-up for a varied week of events that range from films about coalfield life to town walks, and talks on family history and archaeology.The first day sees 250 visitors and Mr Lewis is chuffed.

"All I read in the paper is bad stuff about Selby," says Coun Davis. "This has brought so many people together over something lovely and positive. But it is very hard to put something back once it's gone."

Selby has seen regeneration of the Abbey area, and parks and playgrounds. Further plans are afoot to smarten up the riverside with flats and shops. Proponents of the museum have their eye on Abbot's Staithe, a former medieval monastic warehouse, which went on the market for 250,000 a few months ago. A bid is being submitted for Heritage Lottery Funding cash towards a building.

"We couldn't permanently subsidise the running of it, though," says Coun Davis. "It would have to have other activities going on and be well marketed."

Locals are peering at accounts of historic rugby and cricket matches. A stuffed Sheld Duck gazes glassily from its case. David Lewis is excitedly showing off a pair of medieval leather slippers found by a local farmer in a ploughed field. They were

among five boxes of such artefacts dug up and kept for years in supermarket boxes.

Pensioner Allan Bogie remembers visiting the old museum as a lad. "There was the skeleton of a tiger and a stuffed buzzard. The museum was dusty and quiet. I think people are better at doing museums today."

Selby Museum Week goes on until Sunday, June 20. Information 01757 703758 or from


1. Selby Abbey is the biggest parish church in the country

2. The River Ouse is tidal at Selby, so at a certain phase of the moon a bore or large wave comes up the river, just as it does on the River Severn.

3. Selby is the birthplace of Smithson Tennant, who discovered the two densest metals Osmium and Iridium, two of the 92 elements that make up the Universe.

4. The Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was built in Selby.

5. Selby Town FC was the final club in the career of Ray Wilson, one of England's 1966 World Cup team.