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If you visit the market town of Ashbourne on Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday, you will find the shops throughout the town boarded up. You may wonder what on earth is going on as hordes of people gather on Shaw Croft car park as 2 o’clock draws near.
There is a sense of excitement in the air as the locals prepare to play the ancient and extreme game of Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football. Often called the “glorious game” it is the highlight of the year for many locals.
The ancient tradition of Shrovetide Football in Ashbourne was first recorded as long ago as 1682! The origins are little known but the “glorious game” hasn't changed much over the centuries; except the crowds are much bigger and everyone can track where the ball has got to more easily through social media.
Shrovetide Football is basically a frantic football game played through the streets of the town with hundreds of people and few rules!
There is no pitch and the goals are 3 miles apart at Clifton and Sturston Mill. The game starts at 2 o’clock on both Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday when the ball is “turned up” or thrown into the crowd from the plinth at Shaw Croft Car park in the centre of town.
Tradition dictates that the crowd sings Auld Langs Syne followed by God Save The King, before the ball is thrown sky high into the jostling crowd.
It is a great privilege to be chosen as the honoured guest and it is usually a respected local person, although it was turned up by King Charles in 2003 when he was The Prince of Wales.
There are two balls prepared for each day. They are beautifully painted depicting the life and hobbies of the honoured guests. Following the formal Shrovetide lunch the guest is carried shoulder high through the town to the “plinth” with their ball held high. This year there is a new plinth which is now in the middle of the car park which is a fairer starting point for both teams.
The local lads take the game very seriously and train hard for Shrovetide and are split into two teams depending on where they were born. Up'ards, born North of the River Henmore, and Down'ards born South. Play is fierce and although David is an Up'ard he supports from afar rather than getting caught up in the hug!
The ball is a hard handmade leather ball. Larger than a football it is stuffed with cork chippings, so it floats in the river! It is beautifully hand painted to a design chosen by the local person chosen to turn up the ball at the start of the match.
Whoever goals the ball gets to keep it and usually gets it repainted so it can be displayed in full glory. If the ball isn’t goaled then the person who turned it up gets to keep it.
The Shrovetide ball can be kicked, carried or thrown, but not transported by car. It generally passes along in a "hug" invisible to the spectator. However you can tell where the ball is from afar by the steam rising from the sweaty players!
At start of play you will see a brief glimpse of the ball before the die-hard players form a “hug” trying to gain control for their team. The ball is not long in play before the beautiful paintwork is scrubbed off and it becomes a plain brown leather football.
The hug is like a huge rugby scrum with tens of players on each side jostling for position, and hundreds of onlookers, shouting encouragement. There is a lot of shoving and pushing and you rarely see the ball. Often the only way to work out where the ball has got to is from the steam rising from the hug!
Due to the sheer number of players the ball often gets stuck in one place for a long time, before suddenly and very briefly emerging high into the air above the crowd. When the ball breaks out the hug to a “runner” the action can move very swiftly. As a spectator you need to be on your toes to avoid getting caught up in the action by mistake!
The hardened players try to get the ball in the Henmore Brook which flows through the town, as fewer players are willing to endure the icy waters. The oversized football is filled with cork so that it floats if dropped. Everyone gets covered in mud, climbing on walls and up trees, jumping in rivers and ponds. Play is very physical and frenetic so team players take turns swapping in and out of the hug throughout the day.
A goal is scored by striking the ball 3 times against the old mill wheels, at Clifton or Sturston Mill. As the goalposts are 3 miles apart goals over the two days play are few and far between. Once goaled the person who scores carries the ball back into town followed be cheering team mates and supporters.
If a goal is scored before 6pm another ball is thrown up in the centre of town. Then the game continues until 10.00pm on Shrove Tuesday, before the bruised and battered teams start all over again on Ash Wednesday.
Whilst the whole thing sounds frantic and aggressive the atmosphere is very friendly and sociable. The school children all have the day off and everyone watches out for others. For the majority of Ashbourne folk Shrovetide football is the highlight of the year! It is a unique and quirky spectacle well worth experiencing!
The 'Shrovetide Song'
The Shrovetide Anthem is a song that was written in 1891 for a concert that raised funds to pay fines for playing the game in the street.
It's now sung each day at the pre-game lunch before players and spectators parade through town to Shaw Croft car park to turn up the ball and start the game.
There's a town still plays this glorious game
Tho' tis but a little spot.
And year by year the contest's fought
From the field that's called Shaw Croft.
Then friend meets friend in friendly strife
The leather for to gain,
'And they play the game right manfully,
In snow, sunshine or rain.
'Tis a glorious game, deny it who can
That tries the pluck of an Englishman.
For loyal the Game shall ever be
No matter when or where,
And treat that Game as ought but the free,
Is more than the boldest dare.
Though the up's and down's of its chequered life
May the ball still ever roll,
Until by fair and gallant strife
We've reached the treasur'd goal.
'Tis a glorious game, deny it who can
That tries the pluck of an Englishman
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