Our redevelopment project at Newmarket will see the restoration over the next few years of the derelict Trainer's House on the site to be the new museum and this provides an ideal opportunity to investigate what archaeological evidence has survived which might help us answer this question.
The dig was the culmination of months of research work in the archives to find as much documentary evidence as possible to support the claim and to try and locate where the stables could have been.
The Palace House Stables stand opposite what remains of the racing palace of Charles II. Although the first race in Newmarket was recorded in 1622 and James I had built the first of the town's royal palaces in the preceding decade, racing was suppressed during the Commonwealth Period - not so much a case of 'spoil-sport' Puritanism (even Cromwell is known to have owned his own running horses) but as a calculated political act because race meetings were seen as an unwelcome opportunity for royalist gatherings. Racing was re-established soon after the Restoration in 1660 and Charles II decided to re-build the palace in Newmarket which had been pulled down in the intervening period. Why did he chose the new site further up the High Street rather than rebuild on the site of his grandfather's palace? And what remains of the long lost stable buildings that were erected at this time? Charles II established the Town Plate in October 1665 which is still run to this day. The King actually rode in the race himself, winning in both 1671 and 1675. He appointed Robert Baynton as his Keeper of the Running Horses at Newmarket. So we had the races, we had the horses and we had the Keeper but could we say for sure where Charles II kept his horses?
So it was over to Time Team to help answer these questions. After a geophysical survey and looking at the early eighteenth century plans it was decided to open an exploratory trench to try and find the entrance to the old stable block. If this could be found, it could be compared with the 1740s survey and apart from anything else would allow us to know how accurate these plans were - vitally important in assessing the remainder of the site. Everybody had been warned not to have too high hopes. Tony had said that it was unwise to arrive at a site with a particular expectation, 'It's always bad archaeology to expect to find something because if you do that you are not going to have your antennae attuned for the surprises'. Which is all very well but having invited the programme to come to Newmarket with the potential to make exciting discoveries and, having seen the results of the geophys which seemed to show an awful lot of drains, it was a distinctly nervous museum Director who watched the first trench being dug. However, this slight wobble of confidence proved to be the prelude to the excitement of late morning when just before the break for lunch Phil found the first line of red brick of what was to turn out to be the building's facade lined with Suffolk clunch (essentially a compacted chalk building material) - the footings of a substantial stable block started to emerge exactly where we had hoped they might be.
The next two and a half days comprised a heady mixture of growing excitement (and occasional disappointments) as the team expertly and painstakingly exposed and recorded the site. It became clear that the stables had been built on a grand scale. The ground plan shows that they covered an area larger than the remaining parts of the palace itself and could very reasonably be considered to equate to the stables described by John Evelyn in 1671 where the King's running horses were accommodated at 'vast expense'.
The whole experience of filming the programme was great fun but exhausting: trying to keep track of three teams of cameramen across a complex site and ensure that filming in the present museum was possible whilst still being open to the public was at times a real challenge. It was fascinating to see the interaction between the professional archaeologists and the programme makers. That is what makes Time Team unique: on the one hand it's about making a popular television programme and on the other it's about conducting a serious and professional dig. Undoubtedly the opportunity to have so many experts on site at once meant an incredible amount was discovered in an extremely short time. It was also striking when we went up to Ladies Day at the racecourse to film Tony and the team at the races how many members of the public came up and thanked the group for the learning and education the programme provides - a really moving and quite unexpected side of the afternoon.
Of course there were a few disappointments - the opening up of the top layer of an apparently very promising trench which the geophys suggested might unlock evidence of the palace having been built on important pre-existing structures ran immediately into the problem of extensive modern fibre-optic cabling which stopped things dead in their tracks. An abiding memory is that of the museum Director on the last day of filming bent over a trench in the Palace House gardens (which seemed to offer the tantalising possibility of revealing the foundations of a fountain in the original garden scheme of William III) urging the archaeologists to keep digging as the producer finally said 'Cut!'
Both instances, however, provide opportunities for future targeted archaeological investigation. In a sense Time Team is only the start of it; it has greatly enhanced our understanding and appreciation of the historical importance of the site and gives us an incredibly interesting foundation on which to build further research. Were these the foundations of the earliest racing stables the UK? All will be revealed when the programme airs this Spring.
Chris Garibaldi, Director, National Horseracing Museum, Newmarket & Tim Cox, Trustee