How Old Is Newmarket?
The green, rolling expanse of Newmarket Heath has a timeless quality.On a sunny day, it stretches peacefully into the distance on either side of Newmarket town. It is then easy to forget that it a largely man-made landscape which is carefully tended, but certainly not domestic.
This is, in fact, the largest expanse of cultivated heath land in the world. As well as being a site of special scientific interest, it provides extensive training grounds for some of the finest thoroughbred horses in the world. It is also the acknowledged Home of Horseracing, in addition to being the location of two of the world’s most famous racecourses, the Rowley Mile and July Course.
For much longer than anyone can remember people have been travelling along the chalk belt, upon which Newmarket stands. For many centuries it provided the only way to get to the Norfolk coast and down into the southern lands. In ancient times, swampy Fen was a barrier on the Cambridgeshire side of it and on the Suffolk side stood dense forest. This could not be cleared until strong, metal tools were available.
Flint, used for centuries to make both tools and weapons, is only found in chalk landscapes. It was mined at Grimes Graves, north of Newmarket, from the Stone Age onwards. This was the country’s first industry. The precious flint was taken along the Icknield Way, the oldest road in Britain, and possibly in Europe, which traversed Newmarket Heath and ran through the town roughly parallel to the High Street on the Palace Streetside of the road.
Newmarket High Street has both springs of water and a stream. So, the dry, chalk landscape dictated that this was a good place for a settlement. No one knows Newmarket’s true age but until the 19th century, when the ground was cleared and flattened, Bronze Age barrows (burial mounds) surrounded the town. In dry weather, their remaining outlines are visible from the air, appearing as parch marks in the grass. The barrows pre-dated the Romans, who left their cartwheel ruts imprinted in the landscape. Later, Mediaeval track ways criss-crossed the Heath.
This was the time that the Newmarket we know today began to emerge. In 1200 A.D. Sir Richard de Argentein married Cassandra, the daughter of Robert de Insula, Lord of the Manor of Exning. Sir Richard had other properties and was an important man at Court. The Newmarket land, possibly called ‘Porter’s Piece’ at the time, was part of the 80 acres of land in the marriage dowry and there were tenant farmers already living and working there. The Lord of the Manor already derived income from his tenants (40 shillings (£2) per annum between 1210 and 1212 – a good amount then), but Sir Richard saw far greater possibilities for the settlement. He applied to King Henry III for a market charter and this was granted in 1200. This was also the first year the town was called “Newmarket” in written records.
In 1223 the first royal charter for an annual fair was also granted to the town. Both the market and the fair prospered. By 1270 the annual income from High Street farmer-tenants was almost £3 and from the market was about £7. Mediaeval markets were the superstores of their day where people sold or bartered their excess produce and livestock or bought other animals and goods.
So, Newmarket prospered and was relatively self-sufficient. As it was a convenient day’s travelling distance, on foot or horseback, from surrounding towns, it was a good place for the weary traveller to rest for the night. Centuries later, welcoming and caring for visitors is still a very important part of Newmarket’s life, but today the town’s visitors come from all over the world.
Written by Sandra Easom