Changing times in Selby, North Yorkshire

The historic market town of Selby is undergoing a renaissance as Bill Hearld reports

There's a new air of optimism breezing through Selby. The rural, North Yorkshire market town has had more downs than ups in recent years.

It has seen the decline and closure of traditional manufacturing industries; the giant Selby coalfield, Britain's largest mines complex, shut down in 2004 after less than three decades of production; it lost its shipyard (where Greenpeace's famous Rainbow Warrior II was built) in the mid-1990s. But things are looking up and, according to Selby District Council leader Mark Crane, it is set to enjoy a vibrant, prosperous future. And, as throughout its 2,000 year history, its location is the key.

Selby is at the hub of a wheel which includes York, Leeds, Doncaster and Wakefield. Arriva buses ensure the town is umbilically linked with all these centres while relatively-low property prices make Selby an attractive proposition as a dormitory town, particularly for York and Leeds. But it is a thriving business and retail centre in its own right.

New and varied shops are opening up; there are new bistros and restaurants and quaint tea rooms. There's a brand new hotel on the edge of town; Three Lakes Retail Park is attracting big-name retailers and eateries (even Marks & Spencer is rumoured to be looking at opening a store in Selby); while new homes, offices, small business and manufacturing units are flowering like spring bulbs.

A new hospital and civic centre are to be built on the site of the existing hospital in Doncaster Road, and two of the major supermarkets, Tesco and Morrisons, are set to double in size.

Cheap parking - as little as 40p an hour - is attracting shoppers from around the county and a frequent rail service to and from London via Hull Trains and National Express East Coast, is proving a vital link with the capital for Selby businesspeople.

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Still standing proud is the reason for Selby's very existence - Selby Abbey. It was founded in 1069 by a French monk who, after a vision, was looking for three swans as the sign of where to establish an abbey. He saw the winged trio on the River Ouse and decided to build. These lucky three swans are still the town's emblem to this day.

The abbey, sporting a nicely repaired coat of new stone, is looking finer than it has for centuries, thanks to a 10 year, multi-million pound restoration appeal which reached its target last summer. The Norman building attracts visitors from all over the world, especially the USA, because of links with the forebears of George Washington.

Almost as famous, but universally hated, was Selby toll bridge which choked entry and exit to the town on the York side. It became toll-free in the early 1990s and eased the situation, but it was the opening of Selby bypass in 2003 which freed up the town from heavy lorries and helped start its regeneration.

Plans are afoot to pedestrianise the town centre around the sbbey precinct as part of the multi-million pound renaissance project. Traffic will be discouraged from the heart of town and pavements will be widened to attract new shops and shoppers.

The previously neglected waterfront area has already seen much investment, including a massive new flood defence installation. Even the town's only department store,Wetherells, established in 1898, has shrugged off its Grace Brothers image and had a make-over with-a new cosmetics and beauty hall. The store was reopened recently by Miss England. Director Mark Wetherell has not been impressed by recent parking charge increases, nor is he convinced pedestrianisation is right for the town: 'People need to be able to drive into the town centre to shop and go about their business,' he said.

Mee & Parvins' specialist tobacco emporium in Micklegate opened in 1886 and is - surprisingly in these 'smoking kills' days - still going strong under present owner, Barrie Manners, who took over 44 years ago. Even older, centuries older, is the traditional Monday market in Micklegate and the Market Cross area, which continues to attract bargain-hunters from around Yorkshire.

Selby is now home to an estimated 1,000 Eastern Europeans, the majority Polish, who are employed mainly as salad pickers around the district or on production at Greencore food factory at Barlby. Their presence has led to the opening of Polish stores and dedicated sections in local supermarkets as well as twinlanguage signs around the award-winning Selby College.

'Selby will always be a rural market town stuck in between big cities, but that works in our favour,' said Mark Wetherell. 'We have a lot to offer.'

That may be so, but the town still lacks a cinema. Its last-surviving picture house, The Ritz, burned down in 1982. The day Selby has a new, modern cinema, is when the town can say it is truly back on the map.

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