I was standing less than a foot from a Perspex-covered Banksy original. Hula-Hooping Girl, a stencilled mural depicting a child playing with a bicycle tyre, first appeared in October 2020 on the exterior of a Nottingham hair and beauty salon. Yet the latest address of this hunk of wall is in Newmarket – a Suffolk town that many will know as the home of British horse racing.
Art theorists have suggested that the girl represents a message of hope. To my untrained eye, she was certainly more whimsical than political, but still a slightly incongruous addition to a museum dedicated to horse racing – unless you consider her value. The racing industry brings in a quarter-of-a-billion pounds to the area each year.
The Nottingham transplant is one of several Banksy works among 50 pieces on show in the National Horse Racing Museum as part of its exhibition, The Urban Frame: Mutiny in Colour. Artists featured include Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst, Ben Eine and Blek le Rat, among many others.
There is another street art display in the entrance area, past the gift shop. The 7: Banksy Under Siege is a collection of life-sized photographs of works created by the artist in war-ravaged Ukraine, in November 2022. Among them is a girl twirling a ribbon while wearing a neck brace (Injured Gymnast) and a small boy bringing a grown man to the floor in a martial arts move (Judo).
They briefly transported me to the streets of Ukraine. I imagined the lives of locals who’d passed by these walls when the art appeared.
I didn’t expect Newmarket to spark a deeper interest in Banksy. Mike Brennan, from Hertfordshire, had also been studying the placards. “It’s nice to see culture here, other than the horse riding.”
Newmarket’s involvement in the sport, like the DNA of today’s winning thoroughbreds (records of their births go back further than records for UK-born babies), has been nurtured over centuries.
Indeed, this October will mark 357 years of the town’s longest surviving event, the Newmarket Town Plate race. The annual competition was first conceived by King Charles II, who made the town his place of leisure (he is said to have built a home there for his mistress, the actress Nell Gwyn).
There were other stories to uncover at The Jockey Club Rooms on the High Street. In 1752, the Jockey Club, a social group for thoroughbred breeders and racing enthusiasts, leased a plot of land in Newmarket. Here, a coffee house was started for its members. Then, when the lease expired, they bought the freehold, creating the club rooms.
In recent years, the private members’ club opened to the public. As well as plush décor and views to the clubs’ gardens from the bedrooms, a stay offers the chance to look around the organisation’s collection of equine art. I stayed the night after dinner at Bedford Lodge Hotel & Spa, which is a 20-minute walk from the town centre.
The lodge’s restaurant – Squires – is named after the estate’s one-time owner, George Baird, who was also known as “The Squire”. Baird was a race horse owner, breeder and amateur jockey in 19th century Newmarket. His controversies included being implicated in a boxing scandal and his relationship with the actress Lillie Langtry.
Guests can learn more about the estate’s beginnings (it dates to around 1820, when it was built as a hunting lodge for the sixth Duke of Bedford) over a meal. Squires’ seasonal menus, created using local produce, might include summer pea panna cotta and Cromer crab to start and roast halibut, accompanied by smoked salmon and yuzu sauce, heritage potatoes and shisho leaves, for a main.
Back at The Jockey Club Rooms the next morning, I met Char Collins for breakfast. Char, a local and a former point-to-point jockey, runs tours for Discover Newmarket. She explained that The Coffee Room in which we were sitting, is the oldest part of the club’s buildings and where punters once came to place bets.
We headed for the town’s grass gallops and all-weather gallops, where horses are exercised 365 days a year. Char summed up why horse racing has endured. “It’s human nature: I can run faster than you; my horse can run faster than yours.”
I watched as the men and women, dressed in jewel-coloured uniforms that matched the pom-poms topping their helmets, rode thoroughbreds over the track. They perched in a brace position as the animals’ muscles rippled with each stride.
Other troops crossed the road between the gallops. Char and I, driving in a converted Hackney cab, braked as they passed – horses have right of way in Newmarket, although, these days, most take a dedicated horse path through town.
My tour also took in the National Stud (where horses are bred) and the two racecourses: Rowley Mile and the July Course.
Char reeled off trainers’ names: Charlie Fellowes, Stuart Williams, Amy Murphy. I recalled Murphy’s name as Char talked of when women had to ride side saddle and again while looking up at a painting by the equine artist Lucy Kemp-Welch at Palace House. Brian Styles, a museum volunteer, guided me through her skill (a retrospective of her work runs from 21 October).
But the town is also celebrating and cultivating modern-day local artists. Jenna Asker, whom I met at The Graze Kitchen café, is among them. Asker, originally from California, was involved in Newmarket’s Tiny Art Around Town, a project in which notice boards, displayed in the windows of businesses, are a place for the public to show mini creations.
Finding them is like a treasure hunt: they range from children’s drawings to a detailed study of a human eye (local businesses, including The Rocking Rabbit gift shop and Moons Toy Store, are easy stops along the way).
Newmarket in Colour is another example of the community’s artistic projects: around 1,000 people contributed to 10 murals around town.
They include one outside the National Horse Racing Museum by Kevin Parker. Parker is a member of the Reprezent Project, an urban art organisation formed in 2016 in Great Yarmouth, and which operates across Norfolk and Suffolk.
The ideas behind the brightly coloured design, which includes plants, horseshoes, and treats, such as an ice cream cone and a hot dog and come from working with families; two at the town’s memorial gardens by local artist Penny Sobr are inspired by the overhead butterfly installations that hang above some of the town’s side streets.
Back at the museum, I got chatting to a pair of friends, one from Surrey, the other from Suffolk. The latter said: “You rarely find anything like this here: that’s why we came.”
Perhaps Newmarket’s contemporary art will help to change visitors’ assumptions about the town: it certainly altered mine.
Newmarket railway station is served by Greater Anglia
The Jockey Club Rooms has doubles from £115, jockeyclubrooms.co.uk
What to do
The National Horse Racing Museum for The Urban Frame: Mutiny In Colour (£7 adults; £3 for children aged 12 or over) and The 7: Banksy Under Siege, along with Banksy’s Love is in the Air, until 1 October, nhrm.co.uk
Where to eat
Bedford Lodge Hotel & Spa, bedfordlodgehotel.co.uk
The Graze Kitchen, thegrazekitchen.co.uk