Shrovetide football has been played in Ashbourne in one form or another for at least 350 years. Late to the party as usual this is my first visit. In case you aren’t familiar with the fineries of this longstanding tradition here’s a flying overview:
- Up’ards and Down’ards compete to goal a ball 1.5 miles from the start at Shaw Croft in Ashbourne
- Anyone born north of the river Henmore is a Down’ard, south and you are an Up’ard
- The game starts when a “turner upper” throws the ball into the air from Shaw Croft Plinth
- The game is played over Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday
Think of it as a mass participation game of rugby fuelled by beer that lasts for 2 days. If you want to know more I can recommend the internet
As I enter the town this mid-morning the empty bunting-lined streets allude to a genteel affair, if indeed I have got the right day.
The mood changes as I begin to notice all of the woodwork being applied to shop-fronts.
Most businesses warn that they will be closed in the afternoon. In my experience this behaviour is the prelude to a tornado or the visit of Clint Eastwood on horseback.
I wander over to the epicentre of forthcoming action at Shaw Cross in the Waitrose car park. Shoppers are shopping and only a line of sand bags beneath the raised plinth suggest anything out of the ordinary.
Due to my lack of research I’m not sure what to do for the next 3 hours until the ball is turned up so I decide to follow other people and see where they are going. To the leisure centre it turns out for the traditional pre-game lunch and speech. All comers are welcomed by Mick Pepper who is this year’s esteemed “turner upper” – ie: the one to start the game by throwing it into the crowd.
Many people arrive and they all seem to know Mick and he seems to know them all. There is no sense of competitive rivalry as Up’ards and Down’ards mingle without differentiation.
I gather that an external caterer will be feeding 500 here this lunchtime. Since I’m not one of them I do my own thing until they re-emerge fired up and ready for action some 2 hours later.
A contingent of fluorescent Shrovetide Marshals lead a procession of VIPs through the streets amidst a small crowd of competitors and photographers, me included.
The crowds are waiting at the Bridge on Dig Street where, in accordance with tradition, Mick is picked up and carried through to the plinth at Shaw Croft.
Gone are the shoppers and cars of this morning. In their place await thousands of people all jostling for a view of proceedings.
Any elevated position is a viewing point. This years event almost didn’t go ahead due to difficulties in obtaining insurance. I’m starting to see why.
Few folks have the luxury of a window view.
Shrovetide football in Ashbourne has received international attention for several years, attracting film makers and foreign tourists. The BBC are here amongst others but they face the same struggle to find a good viewing position.
There’s a rendition of Auld Lang Syne and then God Save The Queen plus a speech I can’t hear. Then Mick follows in the footsteps of Brian Clough (1975) and Prince Charles (2003) by launching the ball into the throng.
Despite appearances as a free-for-all there are rules. Most notably murder and manslaughter are forbidden. The ball disappears into the scrum and barely surfaces for 10 minutes.
It is around this time that many onlookers decide they have ticked the Shrovetide football box and head off to wholeheartedly commit themselves to ticking the Shrovetide drinking box.
There must be 10 pubs in the this little town and people are spilling out of each of them this sunny afternoon. It’s sorely tempting to join them except I feel that the game itself deserves a little more attention.
I return to the fringes of the action and decide to set up my tripod on the banks of the river in case the action returns towards town. A gentleman named George tells me that he comes every year on behalf of his truck company to network with clients. Apparently this event is a significant draw for corporate types and the friendly informal nature of Shrovetide is ideal for developing relations. The minimal cost of attendance is shadowed by the potential profit in selling a lorry.
Runners for each side loiter strategically on the periphery of the scrum ready to receive the ball should it break free and sprint off with it. Unlike other variants of football played around the world Shrovetide football recognises the position of “in the river” as that’s where the ball will inevitably spend some time.
Progress, if that’s the word, is slow with the crowd lumbering slowly around the park. There’s an impasse in the children’s playground which at least makes for some interesting spectator viewing opportunities.
Then like the slipping of some tectonic plate the pack darts south back down the slope again and through Henmore Brook. The surrounding crowd rushes out of the way to avoid being trampled and there are shrieks from youngsters as they play their part in this rite of passage.
It’s clear that this is going to carry on for a long time yet. The Up’ards are vaguely on top but there’s another mile to cover if they are going to goal at Sturston Mill.
As the seething mass inches eastward people gradually peel off the core and traipse back towards town to replenish empty plastic pint glasses. With the shadows lengthening and the cold drawing in I make my own escape.
I’m sat at home by the time Vincent Brayne adds his name to the 124 year old Roll Of Honour with a goal for the Up’ards at 7:53pm. Can the Down’ards respond? It all kicks off again tomorrow.