Thursday, 23 June 2022

A Three-Thousand Horse Town

In England it's often difficult to decide whether a site should be classified as of historic importance, scientific interest, recreational value or natural beauty. In such a small country things tend to get mixed up - and in this particular case you can also throw a couple of works of art and one of the country's top sporting venues into the mix.

As you approach the small Suffolk town of Newmarket (human population 15,000) this mighty statue literally rears up ahead of you. It's called the Newmarket Stallion and it stands right in the middle of the road on a traffic island and announces to everyone that this is the horse-racing capital of the UK.

We're about to walk right through the middle of the racetrack, or more exactly we're walking between the July Course and the Rowley Mile Course. Yes, there's more than one course here at racing HQ. In fact the whole town is surrounded by everything to do with the Sport of Kings. There was no actual racing today but we saw one or two horses being exercised as we began our walk and we'll have a look for some more later this morning.

Our walk is along the top of this raised bank, giving us views out over the race courses and the surrounding countryside. This embankment looks like the kind of thing that might have once carried a railway; it's on that sort of scale - though in fact it's much, much older. There's a deep trench along the west side and the whole thing's called Devil's Dyke.

It's around seven miles (11.3 Km) in length and about 30 feet (10 metres) from the bottom of the ditch to the top of the bank. But as you walk along it becomes clear that neither figures nor photos can express the enormous effort of building such a thing. It was probably dug around the fifth or sixth century AD by Anglo-Saxons, though it's not clear whether it was to prevent an invasion, to control trade along the ancient Icknield Way or perhaps even for reasons of prestige. There's an old legend of course....

A big wedding was being held in Reach, at the northern end of the Dyke. The Devil was not invited, but decided to go anyway. He was refused entry and left for home, at high speed and in high dudgeon. His fiery tail left a deep scorch-mark across the fields, which was ever after known as Devil's Dyke. Maybe there's a grain of truth in this tale.....did two tribes unite, perhaps through marriage?...perhaps another tribe felt threatened by this new alliance and dug this defensive ditch as protection...perhaps, perhaps. One thing is clear though: the Devil, rather than dwelling in the depths of hell, once resided in the sleepy Suffolk village of Wood Ditton - that's where the Dyke ends!

The chalky, sun-facing slopes form a rich haven for wildlife, notably chalk-loving plants and the insects associated with them. Marbled White butterflies were everywhere (though the two photos here were taken elsewhere, in much trickier conditions, the day before and, having gone to so much trouble, I'm not going to waste them!).

Butterflies seem to come into this world with a not-very-clear idea of what they can feed on and they dither about from flower to flower, like some absent-minded shopper, until by chance they stumble upon the right one. You want to grab them by the antennae and say "This is what you're looking for!", but all you can do is stand by, patiently or impatiently, camera in hand, and wait.

But at least we knew what we were looking for.

It's called a Lizard Orchid because it's said that the individual flowers resemble small lizards. You can, sort of, see the head and the tail and maybe some little short legs.

Or can you? Whatever you might think about their likeness to lizards, they are certainly some very strange flowers. And they smell of goats.

And here they stand, right beside the race track. They are quite common plants in parts of mainland Europe, but here they are confined to a few places with chalky soils. 

Having found our orchids there was time to quickly visit the training gallops alongside the Moulton road to see some of the thoroughbreds being put through their paces. They gallop up one way...

...then dawdle back towards the town of Newmarket, something which we're about to do ourselves. 

These days the Sport of Kings could easily be re-named the Sport of Sheiks, as huge amounts of Arab oil-wealth have been poured into horse racing. Even so, the Queen has always been a keen race-goer and horse-owner so it's hardly surprising that the town should want a statue of Her Majesty...

Of course, this is Newmarket, so even the Queen has to share the plinth with a racehorse and its foal.

Take care.


  1. Love the orchid. It smells of goats? I wonder what pollinators that is designed to attract.
    The support of sheiks indeed. And royalty. Many a fortune has been won (or lost) on Newmarket and similar courses the world over.

  2. From your photos you would think we lived in a perfectly beautiful world. I suppose the Lizard orchid smelling of goat would tell us otherwise!

  3. Lovely statue of HM and horse and foal John. Your post brought back memories John. When I was about ten I had afriend who's Dad was manager of the Laurie Wallis bookies in Lincoln where I lived. One year they went to Newmarket (where Laurie Wallos lived ) for a week's holiday and they took me with them. It was around 1943 and the town was full of US soldiers I remember *! expect horses too) and all I remember about Laurie Wallis is that he lived at Burwell Manor and that there was a very large Mulberry Tree in his garden.

    1. i know who you are, Pat, and one would have thought, that after all these years, blogger might recognise you too.

  4. They have some stable near where I live and there are gallops up on the Berkshire downs, quite a lot of famous trainers have them

  5. Fascinating account, John. I can safely report that the devil has escaped to Florida. His tail is generally hidden between his legs but his singed hair is visible to all.

  6. Interesting post John. I didn't know much about that. Great photos of the Marbled White.

  7. Wacky legend about Devil's Dyke - how could anyone believe that? I liked the butterflies best!

  8. I loved this walk, John. That dyke is so interesting. Now I'm wondering how that came about. Those orchids are so beautiful. And I love that you wanted to grab those butterflies by their antennae and show them the flowers they were looking for. Made me laugh out loud.

  9. Interesting story about the Devil's Dyke. However it was created, what a feat!

  10. What a strange flower. I see some resemblance to a lizard. Smelling like a goat? Makes it even more a wonder. Thanks for the history and the walk. The author Dick Francis featured Newmarket in some of his mysteries that I read years ago.

  11. Often wondered wer d disease was being a townie would never have sussed that one!!!! R John.

  12. Lizard Orchid does resemble a lizard. The butterflies are beautiful. Thanks for the tour, John and enjoy your day.

  13. That is one odd looking plant with all those 'lizards' hanging about it.
    Thanks for the ID on the plant I posted today.

  14. I always associate the Queen with horses. Great statue!

  15. I absolutely love your Marbled White butterfly photographs and this fascinating Orchid that I have never seen before Wow !

  16. The story of the devil is an intriguing one.

  17. That's an impressive amount of landscaping for the equipment they had at that time.

  18. Love the story of the Devil's dyke. As you say maybe there's an element of truth there. Not being into horseracing I have never been to Newmarket so was very interested in your post.

  19. nice walk with the bonus of this magnificent orchid

  20. Hi John - great to read the history here ... accompanied with superb photos. I'd love to do that walk - must be brilliant ... especially as you had such a wonderful day. Cheers Hilary

  21. Thank you, John. I love that first one of the Newmarket Stallion; it must be such an impressive sight to anyone entering the town. Lovely photos of the butterflies - I wonder how long you had to wait for those beauties to display their patterned wings. As for the Devil's Dyke legend, I believe every word. But then I live in Cornwall, land of King Arthur, Bolster the Giant of St. Agnes and myriad other legends. All true.
    I love going on your walks with you.


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