|The Suffolk and Cambridgeshire border is an area rich in archaeological finds and we can imagine the huts of the stone age and bronze age settlements across the chalk heath lands; the bronze age burial chambers have now largely gone from the heath as it was cleared for racing. Newmarket Heath retains the greatest area of East Anglia's once widespread heath land, though the underlying traditional vegetation is kept at bay with the constant cutting back for the racecourses and the training grounds.
Across these heath lands passed England's oldest known routeway, the Icknield Way. The name is perhaps linked to the predominant tribe of northern East Anglia, the Iceni. It is thought that the route followed more or less the road through the centre of modern Newmarket. The northern end of the way is reckoned to be Knettishall Heath in Norfolk and the southern end at Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire.
The Icknield Way would have seen travellers and traders from the earliest times, the flint mines at Grimes Graves in Norfolk being a major industrial centre in the Stone Age. With Norfolk being the most densely populated part of the country in medieval times and Norwich for a while being the second city of the land, the importance of the road continued. As coaches and carts, riders and walkers, journeyed to and from the capital city to East Anglia, Newmarket became all the more firmly established as the point for rest and refreshment. Right through to post-war times, until the opening of the Newmarket by-pass, motor coach travellers from the further reaches of East Anglia would pull in at Newmarket for the break in their journey.
In the nature of the giving and bequeathing of the rights to land which took place in early medieval times, "Robert de Insula gave Newmarket to Richard de Argent(ein) with Cassandra his daughter in free marriage". We can read of Richard being injured at the siege of Bedford Castle in 1224, but he survived to travel on the Crusades where he seems to have led a final party of knights at the fall of Jerusalem in 1244. At his death, back in England in 1246, he is recorded as an 'energetic' knight whose passing was a loss to the kingdom. His energy included founding the priory of Little Wymondley and a hospital in Royston; he is attributed with encouraging the development of Newmarket. He was influential with the king, which may have assisted in the rapid grant of a charter for a market and then in 1223 for an annual fair.
Whilst the 'gift' of Newmarket and Cassandra probably took place in 1203 or 1204, this information coming from 13th century documents which specifically use the word 'Newmarket', we cannot be absolutely certain at what point the settlement became a 'new market' as distinct from Exning. Did the people of Exning create their 'new market' to gain benefit from the travellers on the busy road? Or was there already a settlement there which decided to create a 'new market' of its own? However, there are few settlements for which we can give such a straight-forward explanation of the name.
Newmarket remains in a curious little pocket of Suffolk that pokes into Cambridgeshire. The two medieval churches of the town used actually to be in the two different counties, with All Saints being in Cambridgeshire and St Marys being in Suffolk; the shift of the boundary of 1889 brought them both into Suffolk.
Whilst Richard de Argentein was away at the Crusades in the 1230s, the king had taken responsibility for his lands, and some centuries later a king was to play a pivotal role in the development of the town. This time it was James I, whose love of hunting and horses brought him to the heath lands of Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire; he built a palace in Royston and rode onward to the Suffolk heath lands. Charles I made Newmarket his place of choice for the enjoyment of horse racing. His nephew Prince Rupert had a Newmarket house designed by Inigo Jones; sadly it is no longer extant. After the restoration, Charles II returned to Newmarket and had his own house built there and prosperity through the connection with racing was assured.
So the trade of Newmarket now no longer relied simply on those who passed through but also on those who came to stay for the racing, and today the town's name is synonymous with the sport. The first race we can read of with some certainty was in 1622, when Lord Salisbury's horse beat the Marquess of Buckingham's horse to win £100. There are now two courses in Newmarket, the Rowley Mile and the July course, with the ancient earthwork the Devil's Dyke running between them. 2,500 acres in and around the town are set aside for racing and training, it has world class veterinary facilities, the headquarters of racing organisations are in Newmarket and about one in four of the local population employed in racing and its support activities. For more information, the National Horse Racing Museum on the High Street will make a good starting point!
Whilst the town grew essentially because of the traffic which travelled through by road, the Newmarket and Chesterford company brought the railway to the town in the early years of railway development; the original station served for passenger and freight traffic until 1902 when the current station was built at a new location. Today it is served by through trains on the Ipswich to Cambridge line.
Newmarket today still feels to have its heart on the road running through. Many will know the town but will never have ventured to explore what is behind the imposing 19th and 20th century properties that front onto the road. The town is not over-rich with earlier buildings, but a visit to the Tourist Information Centre just back from High Street on the eastern side will provide all that is necessary in the way of guidance.
The roundabout on the road as you approach from the south has featured the magnificent 'The Newmarket Stallion' since its unveiling in October 2000. It was created by Marcia Astor and Allan Sly.
Newmarket High Street, looking north. The Icknield Way ran along this route, making it the main highway to the eastern counties of England from Neolithic times to the opening of the town's bypass in the late 20th century
The Tourist Information Centre for the town is now in the house Charles II had built for his use whilst enjoying the racing
The hostelries of Newmarket have served for riders and stage coach travellers over the years, and are now well used by racing patrons. The Rutland Arms bears the arms of the Duke of Rutland with his French motto 'To get there'.
The memorial clock at the northern end of High Street.