Beginners Guide To Shrovetide Football

Shrovetide ball games have been played in England since at least the 12th century, with suggestions that the game was originally started when a criminal’s head was thrown into a crown following an execution. Records and evidence that survived a fire in the 1890’s suggest that Shrovetide Football has been played in Ashbourne since the 1600’s.

After receiving royal assent and a visit from the soon-to-be Edward VIII over 80 years ago, the game was won by a lady for the first time nearly 70 years ago. During the second World War in 1943, Doris Mugglestone goaled for the Up’ards and Doris Sowter goaled for the Down’ards – both on Ash Wednesday.

The Rules of the Game: Played on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday every year, Shrovetide Football starts at 2pm on each day. Constructed in preparation for a visit by HRH Prince Charles in 2003, the ball is thrown from a plinth in the car park of Ashbourne’s supermarket. The car park used to be a meadow (Shaw Croft), and the ball has been thrown from the same spot for hundreds of years. It is evident that the construction of this supermarket wasn’t going to break up the community and halt local traditions.

With the town of Ashbourne, Derbyshire, U.K. being a 3 mile long and 2 mile wide playing field – there are teams from the north (Up’ards) and south (Down’ards) of Henmore Brook which runs through the town.

The goals are set 3 miles apart at Sturston and Clifton. The goals were originally the mill wheels at two local mills, but these have since disappeared. Due to the popularity of the game, two new structures were built at the original locations. Competitors have to enter the brook to score a goal, tapping the ball three times against a marker board attached to stone goal plinths.

The hand-painted 4lb ball is larger than the average head or football to give the competitors an easy target to grapple over. It is also filled with cork to help it float when it enters the brook.

If the ball is ‘goaled’ before 5pm, then another game with a new ball is started and this can continue late into the night. The goaled balls become the proud possession of the person who has goaled it. If no-one goals it, then the person that turned-up the ball gets to take it home.

Committing murder or manslaughter is prohibited and unnecessary violence is frowned upon. The ball may not be hidden in a bag, coat etc or carried in a motorised vehicle.

2011 Shrovetide Football Results: Jim Boden from Cubley (former member of the game’s organising committee), and Frank Lomas from Kniveton (who goaled the ball for the Up’ards in 1969), started off the games on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively. Reports suggest that Tuesday’s game was a draw with Adrian Webb for the Down’ards scoring a goal at 4:50pm and then Richard Goodall scoring a goal for the Up’ards at 6:45pm. Wednesday’s game was also draw with Simon Betteridge scoring for the Down’ards about 3:30pm and then Simon Fisher scoring a goal for the Up’ards at 8:55pm.

Upon arrival, Ashbourne was like a ghost town – all the shops were closed and boarded up. The only places that were still open were a few bustling pubs and the supermarket. Some lost souls (probably visitors like myself) strolled about looking bored and lost.

When people had drank enough Dutch courage they gathered in the large car park behind the supermarket. Spectators lined the walls, avoiding the plinth in the centre where the ball would be ‘turned up’ at 2pm.

Soon enough the car park had filled to capacity with a few thousand people. Whoops and cheers erupted from the back of the crowd where the Officials holding their balls made their way to the plinth.

Announcements were made about avoiding areas such as the doctors surgery, hospital and graveyard (maybe because they would be in heavy demand later?).

God Save The Queen and Auld Lang Syne were then sung very well by the awaiting crowd. By comparison to Hallaton Bottle Kicking and Hare Pie Scramble (which is played every Easter Monday) – Ashbourne Shrovetide Football seemed a little lacking in strange Olde English traditions. Maybe a local Historian could research and resurrect some trademarks?

The ball was then released!

A hug (rugby-like scrum) immediately formed and the muscled men started shouting, flailing their arms everywhere. I stood back from the hug a little to judge exactly how rough or violent it would be. During this time a chap politely passed in front of me repeatedly saying ‘excuse me’ to anyone in his way. It took a few seconds for the crowd to realise it was actually this chap that had the ball.

He had managed to move a small distance from the plinth but then had several hundred men running after him. He didn’t have the ball for long.

At any one time there would be at least 10 men holding the ball. If they managed to keep hold of it, the ball would move slowly – but if a competitor managed to take possession it would move very quickly before being bogged down by a pile of men again. Sometimes the ball would be thrown into the air causing pandemonium.

Unlike the game in Hallaton, the game in Ashbourne starts of in the centre of the town eventually migrating out to the surrounding countryside. Initially, this means the ball often got caught in alleyways or narrow streets causing a large crush of people. Some men who were focussed on playing the game would just elbow spectators and push past them. Other men – on seeing spectators would stop and make sure they were OK.

For example, at one point when the hug quickly moved in a certain direction and flattened a spectator across a shop front, a player kindly stood in front of them putting his arms on each side of their head, with his face just inches from the spectator’s.

He acted as a bridge to prevent the spectator getting more flattened, while spraying his beer-flavoured spittle across their face and suggesting that we find somewhere quieter to start our own game off. The spectator couldn’t move an inch, but only look to their left and right at the other spectators in exactly the same situation. Nevertheless, his assistance seemed appreciated.

This didn’t dissuade many from trying to play the game – lots of people had a few attempts at joining the hug. It can be quite scary when you’re only a little over 5ft and you can’t see past the neck of the person in front of you.

Nevertheless – the danger of the situation and lack of authority means everyone is looking out for each other. If you fall over – someone will pick you up, if you get squashed – someone will make space for you, and if you don’t like it – then people will attempt to move aside to let you get away from the crowd.

There was just one Policeman around during the game at Ashbourne.

Street rugby as played in Ashbourne, Hallaton and many other places around the country may seem quite violent at first glance – and it can certainly result in accidents. But these games are usually played in smaller towns and are essential in keeping a community together. They are now very popular events with people traveling from miles around to see the spectacle for themselves.

Why don’t you try Street Rugby out for yourself?

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