Selby marks 950th anniversary of Yorkshire’s oldest Abbey – but they won’t match the last time

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The Queen and the Prime Minister were there, and the rock band Pink Floyd played, improbably, where the Morrisons car park now stands.

Not far away, the Royal Navy supplied three ships, Fred Trueman and Brian Close played cricket, and the Liverpool Philharmonic put on a concert.

Canon John Weetman in Selby Abbey. Picture: Gary Longbottom

Canon John Weetman in Selby Abbey. Picture: Gary Longbottom

The incredible scale of the celebration mounted to celebrate the 900th anniversary of Yorkshire’s oldest Abbey is recalled by only a few in Selby. As plans for its 950th this year were unveiled, its organisers admitted they had their work cut out to match it.

“It was very unusual for the Queen to come to a parish church. Ordinarily the monarch goes to a Cathedral,” said Canon John Weetman, the Abbey’s vicar. “It was quite a coup.”

Even more unusually, she had chosen the Abbey for the distribution of the traditional Maundy coins on the day before Good Friday – a ritual more usually carried out at Westminster or Windsor.

There will be no repeat visit this year, the Rev Weetman said. But the 950th anniversary celebrations will include an art installation that will see the Abbey bathed in light for three evenings in the autumn. Before then, the Tour de Yorkshire will come to a half outside its door.

The scale of Selby’s ambition 50 years ago was a reflection of the standing it still enjoyed as a major transport hub and shipbuilding centre, local historian David Lewis said.

It was also a well-trodden stop on the path taken by American tourists en route from London, via Stratford to Edinburgh. The attraction was the Abbey, and in particular the 14th century “stars and stripes” window in the south clerestory said to be the finest example of George Washington’s family coat of arms, which formed the basis of the design for the US flag. Its presence in Selby is thought to be a memorial to John Wessington, a prior of Durham who was Washington’s most distinguished ancestor.

The concert by Pink Floyd was part of a “youth festival” in the Abbey grounds.

“It wasn’t even big news at the time,” said Mr Lewis. “They’d had a hit in 1967 and they were playing smaller venues.

“A reviewer at the time said they could be heard two miles away.”

The band’s guitarist, David Gilmour, has yet to reply to an invitation to return this year.

A sound and light installation at the Abbey, narrated by Judi Dench and watched by Prime Minister Harold Wilson, completed the 1969 calendar.

“Looking back over 50 years the scale of the festival is quite astonishing,” Mr Lewis said.

“But at the time Selby had very strong local industries and lots of trade based on the fact that cars had to go over the Selby toll bridge to cross the Ouse, because there was no M62. It was also a stronghold of the shipbuilding industry. The Ouse was navigable as far as Selby, and the Cochranes yard had built fishing trawlers and some of the Mulberry harbours for the D-Day landings.”

A trio of Navy vessels on the river completed the carnival effect for the 1969 anniversary – although a request to Nasa for the loan of the recently-landed Apollo 8 space capsule did not succeed.

A centrepiece of this year’s anniversary celebrations will be a carnival parade on July 31 to mark the feast day of the Abbey’s patron saint, St Germain, along with a newly commissioned icon by the religious artist Aidan Hart.