Heritage & museums: A winning formula
PUBLISHED: 12:43 23 January 2017
Lindsay Want discovers that there's something fascinating for everyone at Newmarket's brand new mega attraction - Palace House, the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art
Smart, sleek, intelligent, agile and inspiring, Newmarket has recently found itself another winner. It’s at home in a stable yard right in the heart of town, with royal connections, many passionate backers and one amazing pedigree.
With the bit between its teeth, it’s already the talk of the town and set up to be an odds-on favourite for the future. So what’s the great attraction? Another fine chestnut racehorse perhaps? Not quite, but in Newmarket, the home of horseracing, you’d expect there to be something equine in the equation.
Its official name is Palace House, the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art – admittedly a bit of a mouthful, but then like any fine filly, a shorter ‘stable’ name is sure to follow. A five-acre town centre location, a £15 million project, 10 years in the planning.
To be fair, it’s a complex sort of beast, bringing together three complementing attractions on one cohesive site. What’s really impressive is how it showcases history by making it feel totally at home, lined up in the stalls alongside fine art, sporting memorabilia, cutting-edge science and retired racehorse husbandry.
With over 2,500 horses in training, 80 training yards, 50 miles of turf gallops, two racecourses, equine traffic lights and swimming pools, plus more vets than GPs, Newmarket has a way of wooing you with sheer equine spectacle, even if horses are not quite your thing.
Likewise, its new heritage centre is not just a feast for racing fans or an unrivalled outing for equine enthusiasts. It’s an amazing insight into the life and times of this exceptional corner of the county, a fun, interactive and informative experience for everyone. What at first glance might seem like a bit of an outsider, is a safe bet for a great family day out.
Those racing royals
It was James I who originally found a royal soft spot for this part of Suffolk. Back in 1605, he enjoyed its hunting and hawking, staying at the town’s Griffin Inn, which later became something a little more fit for a king. By 1671 racing-lover Charles II had moved his court here to a new palace designed by architect William Samwell, situated behind the Greyhound Inn.
Remarkably, parts of it still remain today. Grade II* listed and beautifully renovated, Palace House is now a most sympathetic home to heritage centre component number one, the Fred Packard Museum and Galleries of British Sporting Art. It’s a precious gem of Suffolk history, which at long last takes its much deserved place in the limelight, for all to experience and enjoy.
Climb the stairs to the king’s bedroom to discover delicate blue panelled walls hung with iconic paintings, and room after delightful room of fine art, ceramics, prints and drawings. Stubbs, Munnings and Singer-Sergeant classics rub shoulders with more modern day surprises, like Blake and Wallinger, celebrating sport in art well beyond the equestrian.
King Charles II himself is on hand – or rather on tablet – to ‘multi-media’ guide younger audiences around his home and the collection. There’s a more erudite audio tablet-tour available too, but the monarch’s wise words and gentle interactive challenges are tempting for grown-ups as well. Either way, there are windows onto worlds at all levels here – not least an original 17th century counterbalanced sash window, considered one of the earliest of its kind in England.
The secret garden graced with Fiddian-Green’s emotive equestrian sculpture alongside Palace House is the perfect place to admire the building’s beautiful oriel window, before taking the few steps across to welcoming King’s Yard, home to heritage centre component number two, the National Horseracing Museum.
To the right, real stables house individual galleries, taking you through the bare bones of the racing industry, from the skeleton of famous 18th century thoroughbred Pot-8-Os, and history of bloodlines, to riding techniques and that ‘must-have-a-go’ racehorse simulator. There are ABC explanations of what buying a racehorse entails, a chance to name your own racehorse and choose its colours too.
Across the yard, by the tempting terraces of the Tack Room café, there are more museum galleries and glittering prizes in store at Trainer’s House. Built on the site of Charles II’s stables, the Victorian house opens up to glass corridors and first class, purpose built galleries, home to inspiring temporary exhibitions, the permanent collection of racing memorabilia and artefacts, and a mini-science museum, the Maktoum Gallery of the Thoroughbred, with its fascinating anatomical studies of supreme equine athletes.
Tour the galleries and the international reach of this national passion, its eccentricities and Newmarket’s role at the heart of it all, soon falls into perspective. Watch the Queen’s face as her own horse wins the race and she’s confronted with presenting a prize to herself. See shining trophies and hear larger than life sporting legends, like Frankie Dettori and Bob Champion, relive their tales of glory. Create your own perfect racehorse, peer into horses’ brains, and wonder about horses’ hooves as trophies.
But the most magical thing about Newmarket’s new cultural offering, the one that makes the whole place come alive, simply has to be that you can meet the horses themselves, even after 1pm when the rest of Newmarket’s thoroughbreds are out of sight, back in the safety of their stables.
Behind King’s Yard lies the restored Rothschild Yard and beyond that a horse-walker, farriers and the Peter O’Sullevan arena. This is heritage centre attraction number three, the Retraining of Racehorses. Here, you can catch the real jink of bits and stable lads’ banter, get a whiff of warm horse after its exercise, and learn about the new shoes, new diet and new mind-set a racehorse needs when it goes into retirement. You can even try out different saddles on a model horse to understand some of the challenges for yourself. With live demonstrations twice daily, it’s a treat to see the re-schooling of such magnificent animals in practice and hear about their futures off the racetrack straight from the horse’s mouth . . . well, from the trainers at least.
Need to know
What? The National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art
Where? Palace House, Palace Street, Newmarket CB8 8EP
When? Open every day except Christmas Day. 10am -5pm
How much? Adult £16.50, child £9.60, under 5s free. Concession £15.50
Family (2 adults & up to 4 children) £40.
Value for money? Definitely. Tickets purchased now direct from Palace House can be converted to a one-year pass, giving complimentary admission to the site. Enjoy a year’s worth of changing temporary exhibitions and events, pop back to meet new horses in residence (changed every two months).
Find out more www.palacehousenewmarket.co.uk