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Ashbourne Shrovetide Football
Where did you say this was?
While many of you were enjoying your pancakes on Shrove Tuesday and then starting your Lenten sacrifices on Ash Wednesday our local town was once again turned into a giant football or rugby pitch for the annual Shrovetide Football game which lasts over the two days. This little town is called Ashbourne and known as the 'Gateway' to the Peak district and Dovedale. It is just an average market town that has now lost its cattle market but has a growing population as a commuter town for Derby. The population is now about 10,000 which is about double what was when I went to school there in the late 60s.
A game of two sides:
The origin of the rather strange game is unknown but it has been going for many hundreds of years, possibly for over 1,000 years as there are records of it being played in the 12th century. The young enthusiasts train for months to get fit enough to be able to cope with the rigours of the game. The rules once the ball is in play are few and the numbers on each team are unlimited but there is usually a hard core of toughies actually getting into the full hands on activity with many other followers who may or may not ever get near the ball. Everyone and anyone can join in but there are basically two teams, the Up'ards and Down'ards .
How do you know which team you are ?
You are born into your team depending on which side of the Henmore brook you were born on. This small river runs through the centre of the town and is obviously one of the main places that the ball and people end up in during the game. The Up'ards are born north of the river and the Down'ards south of the river. This becomes a little trickier in these modern days with fewer home births. At one stage Ashbourne had a maternity hospital which was north of the river so patently the Up'ards had an advantage but now most children are born in Derby which is south of the river so the Down'ards are gaining advantage. However I think that it tends to run in families and certainly old Ashburnian families take this very seriously and know exactly which team they belong to. On the day no uniforms are worn yet people seem to know exactly who is on which team. I think that the main rules for clothing is wear something old and most of the lads wear tightish jogging pants as then there is less chance of them being grabbed and pulled off!
Board up your windows:
The entire town centre is shut for the two days and for a few days before you can see the shops boarding up their glass fronts. Most shops close during this time and usually the schools in Ashbourne have their half term break but this year because of the late Easter the schools had already had half term so the schools closed and had inset days instead. The only shops open are the cafes and chippies and of course the pubs do a roaring trade as the followers often watch with beers in hand.
Book your time off:
People who were brought up in Ashbourne and now work in other parts of the country come back to Ashourne especially for Shrovetide. Other people who work locally take the day off on at least one day and if they cannot mange that they rush into town after work to follow or just mingle in the crowds and catch up with old friends. My step son took the Wednesday off and brought a few 'outsider' from his work to experience the game. My step daughter took baby in the pram and met up with friends in the afternoon, came back to feed her daughter and put her to bed before heading off for the evening on both days. My other step daughter took her two sons and we went with her to see the ' Turning Up' of the ball on Tuesday and we followed for a while before going back for a cuppa at her house which is just near the Down'ards goal. We went for a walk to inspect the goal and we just missed seeing the first goal scored by minutes.
The start of the game:
So in the car park on Shaw croft which is usually packed with cars we have a huge crowd of people of all ages from babies in prams to the fairly elderly. The crowd begins to get more and more excited until finally a group of people, one carrying the ball are allowed through the crowd to get to the brick stand at one end of the car park. This stand has two union Jacks flying and is high enough to be able to see it from the back of the crowd. The important person, Prince Charles did this one year, gives a bit of a speech which no-one but the couple of rows in front of the stand can hear. Then the crowd sing 'Auld Lang Syne' followed by 'God save the Queen' then the ball is thrown into the crowd and the fun begins.
This is not just any old ball it is a specially hand painted cork filled leather ball These balls are larger and heavier than a normal football . The cork inner is designed to allow it to float when in the river which is somewhere it spends quite a lot of its time.
The ball is beautifully hand painted and is different each time .Naturally during the game it gets quite well handles and the painting is often not quite as gleaming as when it started. The person who scores a goal is allowed to keep the ball and after each goal the entire crowd returns to Shaw croft for another 'Turn Up'. If the goal scorer chooses he can pay to have it re-painted. If there are no goals scored then the person who turned it up gets to keep it.
T hese I have taken straight from the Shrovetide website: http://www.shrovetide.net/
"The rules in this game are quite short, the main rules which must be followed are:
* No tresspassing on other peoples property.
* The ball must not go into the churchyards, Memorial gardens or building sites
* You must not intentionally cause harm to others.
* The ball must not be hidden from view in bags or rucksacks.
* The ball must not be transported in a motorised vehicle.
* A ball is goaled when it is tapped three times onto one of the stone plinths. If it is goaled before 5pm then another ball may be thrown up.
* Play ends at 10pm and the ball is returned to the Green Man public house."
There is more to this than just a game:
There is a special Shrovetide committee and these are generally old Ashburnian families who have been part of the town for years. They are often people who played in the past or may even be current players . At midday about 400 important people in the Shrovetide following including the committee meet for a pre-game lunch and speeches at 'The Green Man and Black's Head Royal Hotel' which is in the middle of the town on the main street.
At about 1.50pm the person 'Turning Up' the ball is carried through the town on the shoulders of some of the players to the plinth in Shaw croft. Then the speeches and singing followed by the 'Turning Up' of the ball into the 'hub' as the group of players is called.
Once a goal is scored the players return for another 'turning up provided this goal is cored befor 5pm. If not then the game ends when the goal us scored or at 10pm if no goal is scored. If no goal is cored then the ball is returned to 'The green Man ' pub for the next day or to keep for posterity.
These again are not the traditional goals but rather they are large stone blocks in the river. On the land side on the stone is carved the inscription of whose goal it is but in the river uo high is a circle. This is the spot that must be touched by the ball. One person alone cannot score a goal he needs to be hoisted up out of the river so that he can touch this circle with the ball. There have to be official Shrovetide committee witnesses to this goal scoring so some of them at least have to be fit enough to keep up with the main hub of fit players in the game. I am sure it has become obvious that to play in the game you must be prepared to get very wet and muddy so you hope for a nice sunny day but more often not that it is drizzly and wet. Oh yes I forgot to mention that the goals are actually three miles apart, the Up'ards goal is in Sturston on private property while the 'Down'ard's goal is in Clifton. The teams always go for their own team goal and they don't ever change.
Anyone can play:
Yes indeed anyone can play but you may have gleaned from reading this that it is not some mamby pamby game. You have to be very fit and tough otherwise you will risk injuring yourself. Over the years as far as I am aware there have been no deaths but there have been lots of broken limbs and even more bruised and battered bodies. You don't just kick the ball to each other so in this way it is far more like a 'free for all 'rugby game than a football game. Once the ball is 'turned up' into the 'hub' then those playing just dive in without a care. We watched several people just crowd surfing then diving down so all you could see were their feet sticking up out of the mass. I am quite certain my head would not be down amongst everyone else's feet!
I remember one year when my son and his mates were still at school, one of his friends lost his shoe in the hub and he continued to play for an hour or so with just one show but luckily he then found another shoe that someone had lost, unfortunately it was the wrong foot but he wore it anyway.
Does it happen every year?
Indeed Shrovetide football has been played every year even during the two world wars. There have only been two years when the game was cancelled and both of these were because of Foot and mouth. In 1968 a mini version was played on the park but in 2001 the game was cancelled altogether but the players still met at the plinth to sing the songs as a tribute to the. The next year 2002 Prince Charles was meant to 'Turn Up' the ball. but had to cancel because of the death of Princess Margaret however he came and did his bit the next year instead. Last year in 2010 it was our local MP Partick McLoughlin who did the honours with the ball but often it is an Ashburnian person with some connection to Shrovetide who is selected to fill this important role.
Anyone want to come next year?
So if you fancy seeing a bit of English tradition which so far has not been banned, despite many attempts over the years then book yourself in to a B&B for next year. If you want to be part fo the game then do some training because as you have been warned the goals are three miles apart and the game can last up to eight hours each day. You can of course just follow and drop out whenever you have had enough and make your way to a cafe or one of the many pubs in Ashbourne. If you just go down in the evening and if the game is over early then your chances of getting inside a pub is nil, they are heaving and the streets are full of those who have 'supported' the game with beers rather than by playing so it can be a bit rowdy.
Thanks for reading and trust I have enlightened you. If you want to see some of the action then type in Ashbourne Shrovetide on You Tube and there are several videos there. There are some excellent B&W photos taken by a photographer friend of my boys if you follow this link on facebook I think it is open to all as he wants his work to get some exposure. http://www.facebook.com/album.php?id=505350730&aid=40324
Otherwise try http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-derbyshire-12694798 for photos of this year's event.
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