“THAT’s the last piece of coal to come from Wistow Mine.”

Whenever we visit Selby Abbey we come across something new. This time we chatted to a local man about Selby Coalfield, which produced 121 million tonnes of coal between opening in 1983 and closing in 2004.

The coalfield was a large-scale deep underground mine complex based around Selby, with pitheads at Wistow Mine, Stillingfleet Mine, Riccall Mine, North Selby Mine, Whitemoor Mine and at Gascoigne Wood Mine. Coal was brought to the surface and treated at Gascoigne Wood, being distributed onwards by rail.

We were shown the last chunk of coal - about the size of a laptop screen - to be mined at Wistow, and which is on display at the abbey.

It sits beside a plough belonging to Albert Alma Wilson, champion ploughman of England in 1951, who farmed at nearby Camblesforth.

Founded in 1069, Selby Abbey celebrated its 950th anniversary last year, honouring the important role it plays in the town’s history. Described by the author and former National Trust chairman Sir Simon Jenkins as ‘one of Yorkshire’s greatest architectural jewels’, it is one of the few surviving abbey churches of the medieval era and one of the largest.

Taking just under an hour on a direct rail link with Bradford, Selby Abbey is a grand place to visit on a day out. It’s packed with interesting features, and while there you can explore the town as well.

The abbey is famous in the USA for its Washington Window, a medieval window with a design including two red bands on a white shield which represents the arms of the Washington family, the ancestors of President George Washington. It is believed to commemorate John Wessington, Prior of Durham from 1416 to 1446, one of George Washington’s ancestors.

Thought to have been the inspiration for the American stars and stripes flag, the window features on American heritage trails and attracts many visitors from across the Atlantic.

When they were small, my daughters used to love peeping through the leper squint, a narrow hole slicing through the abbey’s thick stone walls allowing lepers, who were excluded from churches for fear others would catch the disease, to see the high altar.

In the South Aisle of this magnificent building, on top of a series of stone columns, we came across a variety of little animals including a deer, rabbit, cow and, my favourite, a pig with an acorn in its mouth. Each has been beautifully carved into the stone by local craftsman Tom Strudwick, whose talent helped to rebuild the abbey following a major fire in 1906.

Children can discover facts about the abbey on a special ‘Benedict Trail’ in a free printed booklet.

Benedict, a monk from Auxerre in France, experienced a vision by God where he was called by St Germain to start a new monastery at ‘Selebiae’. In his vision he was told the site would be marked by the presence of three swans.

He travelled to England but first took a wrong turn, thinking he should go to Salisbury. He was soon put on the right track, finally arriving at the bend of the river Ouse at Selby to see three swans leaving the water. The birds have been the symbol on the abbey crest ever since.

I wonder what Benedict would make of this magnificent place of worship now, with its own coffee shop serving hot drinks, cakes and other snacks.

Selby town centre is compact, with a mixture of high street stores and independent shops, including a department store, Wetherell’s, established in 1848 and still going strong.

If you don’t get a drink in the abbey itself, the store’s coffee shop has tables overlooking it.

It’s a short walk from the town centre to Selby Canal, which opened in 1778 and follows a six mile route from the River Ouse to the River Aire.

The waterway played a vital role in the development of the town’s economy, with cloth and agricultural produce among the first goods to be transported.

It’s interesting to stand at the junction of the calm, slow-flowing canal and the wider, fast flowing River Ouse, separated only by lock gates.

Colourful boats are moored in the wide lock basin, from where we walked about a mile along the towpath, passing through a light industrial area before hitting open countryside. I always find walking along a canal towpath, with its boats, ducks and fishermen, calming. It’s a great way to blow away any remaining cobwebs after the festive season.

Available in the abbey and in various shops throughout the town, a booklet Swanning Around Selby tells the story of Selby’s history, guiding users along six themed walks to more than 50 Selby heritage sites. It is well worth picking up.

*Swanning Around Selby is available free from Selby Abbey, local libraries, Selby railway station, the Selby Times office, Selby Town Hall and many cafes and shops.