They are so precious they’re kept permanently in a case and even museum staff will only handle them with white gloves.
Now, for the first time ever, the world’s oldest sporting trophy to still be contested - The Carlisle Bells - have travelled 267 miles back home from Newmarket to Carlisle Racecourse for tomorrow’s Carlisle Bell and Cumberland Plate meeting.
Dating back to 1559 and the second year of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign – The Bells are the prize for the winner of Cumbria’s most celebrated Flat race, The Carlisle Bell.
According to history The Bells – donated by Lady Dacre (believed to be Lady Jane Dacre, wife of Thomas Dacre of Naworth) – were first presented to the winner of the Carlisle Bell Handicap in 1599.
On loan from their usual home at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle, the bells are currently kept at Newmarket’s National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, where they play a starring role in the ‘Under Starters Orders’ Gallery.
But they are back in Carlisle this week and Geraldine McKay, Carlisle Racecourse’s General Manager, said: “It will be great to have the Bells back here for race day.
“It’s amazing a prize given out in the days of Queen Elizabeth I has survived 458 years. They have been around for 16 monarchs, 76 Prime Ministers, and the thing we are most proud of – more than 400 runnings of this most treasured race here in Cumbria.
“We are very excited Bell and Plate Day is here again – it’s our Derby Day – the day that stops Carlisle as thousands take the day off work and head here for a great days racing.”
The larger of the two bells is engraved around the circumference: The sweftes horse thes bell to tak for mi lade Daker sake (The swiftest horse this bell to take for my lady Dacre’s sake). Before her marriage, Lady Dacre was called Jane Carlisle and lived in a house on Abbey Street called Whitehall in Carlisle – the site of Tullie House Museum today.
The smaller second bell is inscribed on the top with the words 1599 HBMC. The initials are believed to commemorate Henry Baines, the then Mayor of Carlisle.
Bringing The Bells north from Newmarket is a painstaking task, handled with loving care by Alan Grundy, assistant curator at the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art - Art Fund Museum of the Year finalist.
Alan explained: “I am taking them up to Tullie House Museum in time for the Carlisle Bell Handicap race on Wednesday.
“Being very small and delicate they travel in a special protective case which definitely won’t leave my side as I drive there.
“After spending a day at the races, and hopefully finding the winner of the race, I will return to Newmarket with the Bells.”
And Chris Garibaldi, Director at the National Heritage Centre at Palace House in Newmarket, added: “The Bells are extremely significant, not only are they are the oldest British racing trophies on display but they are the oldest trophies from a sporting event still contested today.
"We are delighted to establish the tradition of the Bells being returned each year for the Carlisle Bell Handicap. They are very popular objects as they evoke the very earliest history of racing in this country and we feel it is a highly imaginative collaboration which underlines the idea of a single national collection."
This year is set to be another bumper Bell and Plate day with many of the UK’s top horses, jockeys and trainers heading to Cumbria. They include Scotland’s Keith Dalgleish. The Carluke-based trainer saddled a glorious double last June when he scooped both the Carlisle Bell and Cumberland Plate trophies with his horses Edgar Balthazar and Sindarban.
Gates on Bell and Plate Day (Wednesday June 28) open at noon. First race is at 2pm, last race 5pm. Advance tickets from carlisle.thejockeyclub.co.uk start at £12.50 for groups and £14 individuals. Under 17s get in free.