A Norman castle, a fabulous church and a rare manuscript – the little town of Tickhill has a fascinating history

There is one thing in politics that is as true today as it ever was – it is not what you know, but who you know.

There is one thing in politics that is as true today as it ever was – it is not what you know, but who you know. It was certainly the case back in the years around the Norman invasion of England, when the conquering William took cronyism to new heights, and handed out vast tracts of land – previously held and administered by the Anglo-Saxon hierarchy – to many of his friends and acolytes.

Among these was Roger de Busli. To say that Roger was something of a favourite of the new monarch is quite an understatement. By the time that the Domesday survey was completed, in around 1086, Roger had land in, amongst other places, Lincolnshire, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire, and South Yorkshire. In the last two counties alone he had 132 manors, all paying a hefty tithe from the serfs and tenants, for their right to exist.

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Roger was a prolific constructor of castles, and one of the first that he ordered to be built was at Tickhill. Parts of it are still there today, and it was a classic design concept of the time. First, you pile up earth and rocks to make a sizeable mound, and then you put a wooden palisade around the top. Having secured the space, you then begin the real work of bringing in stones to build the keep and the ramparts around it.

Roger died just as the 12th century was dawning, without a son, so everything went to his brother and then his descendants, before the male line finally died out in 1213.

Roger’s great-nephew Richard was one of the co-founders of Roche Abbey, the great monastic institution only a few miles from Tickhill. In one of those lovely little tweaks of history, when Roche was dissolved in 1538 (under the instruction of Henry VIII) tons of stone from the main buildings were carted back into Tickhill, and used to build substantial amounts of the town we see today. As for the castle itself, it’s now owned by the Duchy of Lancaster.

Like so many other communities that prospered in medieval times, Tickhill grew because of its strategic position.

It is a significant junction, with roads linking to Bawtry, Rotherham and Doncaster, and at its heart is the ancient Buttercross. The one we can see today dates from 1777, and is a rather beautiful Georgian piece of architecture. That replaced something far older, which proclaimed the town’s right to hold a market, and to have a much larger annual fair on August 10, St Lawrence’s Day, where produce could be brought in from the surrounding countryside, and food and drink was enjoyed.

Today, Tickhill is a small, but attractive, “dormitory” town. The population is below the 6,000 mark but there are plenty of good (and very popular) independent shops. What characterises Tickhill perhaps above all, though, are the buildings and landmarks, not all of them instantly obvious to the visitor. The mill pond here once drove the great wheels of no less than four watermills, and was a popular fishing spot, and to this day is still a great favourite for local artists.

St Mary’s Church is an architectural marvel, though it’s only when you stand in its well-kept churchyard that you fully appreciate its splendour, and why it is much-loved, and Grade I listed.

It (mostly) dates from the 12th century, and looks like a magnificently-tiered wedding cake.

One of the most moving monuments inside is to an aristocratic Victorian, a member of the eminent Foljambe family (they too arrived with William I), who died in childbirth. It has all the overstatement of the period, but reading her story on the church information sheets makes it poignant and deeply moving.

The Foljambes were rooted in local politics – one of their number, Francis, was MP for Yorkshire at one point. There’s a ring of eight bells (plus a service bell), three of which date from 1726.

Another remarkable building is the timber-framed St Leonard’s Hospital, on Northgate. The original idea of a hospital probably came from around 1200, but it was clearly open for business in 1225 (on another site, just outside the town), because Walter de Grey, the Archbishop of York of the time, wrote a stinging note about the “decayed conditions” – not of the structure itself, but the attitude of the friars who ran it.

Clearly, they were paying more attention to their own wellbeing, rather than to their patients, who were all suffering from leprosy. The hospital was relocated to its present position in 1470, and, when its original role had concluded, it became a tenement for several families, and, eventually, the parish meeting hall. Visitors can still see the original ten bays where the patients lay, awaiting their fate.

The advent of the railways in the 19th century transformed countless communities, though it would appear as if the locals of the late Edwardian era were less than impressed when the Great Northern Railway opened a station for them in 1910, for it offered passenger services for a mere 19 years.

A far more enduring monument to the town, however, is the superb Tickhill Psalter, which dates from the 14th century, and which has been recognised as one of the most important examples of illuminated manuscripts in the world. However, to actually see this treasure (which shows scenes of the life of King David) you would have to make quite a trek, for it is now on display in the Public Library of New York City. You wonder how many who marvel at it will even know where Tickhill is.

Famous connections? Victorian cricketer James Burbeary was born in Tickhill; the Rev Francis Fletcher, who accompanied Francis Drake on his around-the-world voyage, once preached at St Mary’s; Jean Fergusson (Last of the Summer Wine’s Marina) was a popular resident for many years; and the prolific author Gervase Phinn lives a stone’s throw from The Buttercross.

The link for that quartet is that they all excelled in their own particular fields of endeavour. Tickhill is perhaps rather reticent to come forward. It seems to like being where and what it is – conveniently placed, quietly confident, and full of history.