Ever thought of football as an extreme sport?
Welcome to the world of Royal Ashbourne Shrovetide Football (Shrovetide)!
I was introduced to Shrovetide when I met my then-to-be husband, a determined Shrovetider, and asked him how he’d broken his nose!
Shrovetide football is played in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, England, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday every year, as it has done annually from at least the 12th Century (not even the world wars stopped play.)
Both the inventors of Rugby, and Association football, had strong Ashbourne, and Shrovetide connections.
The goal posts are 3 miles apart, there is no pitch, just the streets of the town, the surrounding fields, and of course, the river Henmore, which is perhaps the most important area of play. This is because the goal posts are at the site of the old mill wheels of the two mediaeval water mills, upstream and downstream from the town, respectively.
The ball (brightly painted leather, about the size of a medicine ball) is ritually thrown to the mob (known as “The Hug”) at 2 p.m. each day, and is then fought over by two teams, the “Uppards”, who try to score it at the upstream goal, and “Downards”, who try to score it at the downstream goal, until 10 p.m.
As the ball is made of leather, with a stuffing of sawdust, as it gets wetter, it gets heavier. It also swells. Thus, by the time it has reached one or other of the goals, most of its paint has been rubbed off, and it is a sorry sight as it is victoriously carried aloft back to The Green Man, to mark the end of play.
(If the ball is goaled before 5 p.m., a second ball is turned up, but normally the ball is not goaled until well after 5 p.m., if at all.)
Loyalties are decided by birth, if you’re born upstream, or from an upstream family you’re an Uppard, and vice versa. (This differs from most ball games, in that the aim is to score an “own goal”)
There is no limit to the number of players on each side, and very few rules, so the game is very rough and tumble. It is all played in good humour, so deaths are infrequent, but it is a great spectacle to watch.
As the field of play is the whole town, spectators get caught up in events, but it’s quite safe – there are refuges in enclosed areas to ensure only players have any chance of injury.
It can be quite disconcerting, however, to see 4 to 5 hundred men in rags and hobnail boots rampaging towards you!
The river banks form a fantastic viewing platform for watching river play, and cheers go up from the crowd whenever the ball is seen.
It can be cold, but luckily Ashbourne has many historic pubs, cafes and restaurants to get you warm, and the pubs open each day before the game starts, and do not shut until well after the game finishes.
The locals are very welcoming, and someone in the crowd will always explain the finer points of play, as they’re intensely proud of their unique heritage.