Every year, usually in February, a custom once common throughout England takes place in the Derbyshire country town of Ashbourne. For two days, Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, the town all but grounds to a halt, while shops and houses bar their windows with wooden planks, as often it is only the hotels, restaurants and pubs that remain open for business.
Shrovetide Football is not like what we call football today and is known as soccer in the USA. Nor is it like American Football but it does have some similarity to rugby football, as there is a scrum, known locally as the hug.
However, the historical tradition, the numberless players that form each team, the lack of protective clothing, the distinct limit to the rules and the acceptance of male and female players, sets this annual game apart.
There is a great deal of speculation on the origins of Shrovetide Football, academics and folklorist all have an opinion but there is little hard evidence to support the many conflicting theories over the customs origin and meaning.
It is speculated that Shrovetide Football may have a history stretching back to pre-Norman times. There are suggestions that the ball may have once been an animal head or possibly a human head. Does this hint at some sacrificial element in pre-history or was the head as some claim, that of an executed criminal? We do not know and I doubt if we ever will, Shrovetide is an enigma.
There were once various Shrovetide traditions throughout England, although many have now ceased to continue. There were many Shrovetide football games, often of a very similar nature to the one that still takes place in Ashbourne. These customs often shared certain common features as Shrovetide traditions appeared to be of a cathartic nature, releasing pent up energy post winter in preparation for the forty days of Lent, leading up to Easter. There would be drinking, feasting and violence.
This rowdy and undisciplined nature of many of the Shrovetide traditions, in particular the customs relating to football, led to their demise. Several legal prohibitions from Medieval times to the Victorian age, document the gradual eradication of these customs. The last Shrovetide Football match to take place in Derby was in the early nineteenth century. It was finally suppressed by force, as crowds refused to obey the formal statutes and continued to gather in the town centre.
The Town of Ashbourne
Ashbourne is known as the Gateway to the Peak, situated as it is on the south eastern edge of the Peak District. Nearby are the famous Dove Dale and Thorpe Cloud, while the town itself is surrounded by beautiful walking country. Alton Towers Amusement Park is within easy reach.
As a town it has failed to become a victim of modern tourism, as there are few “attractions” within the town itself. It stubbornly remains a traditional Derbyshire market town, happy to cater to the passing visitor travelling to or from the Peak District. The town is able to provide accommodation and refreshments to holiday makers, without having lost its character and become just another “holiday stop.” The disadvantage of this; is that visitors can be left with nothing to do if they stay in the town and unlike Matlock Bath and Bakewell, Asbourne still all but shuts down on Bank Holidays and Sundays.
The Match Today
The match is played between two teams: the Up'ards and the Down'ards. Each team may feature hundreds of people from the local area and further afield. Which team you play for is determined by your place of birth; whether it is north or south of the river Henmore, which flows through the town.
The object of the game is to get the leather-bound, cork-filled ball to your goalpost and score. The goal posts however, are three miles apart and consist of old mill wheels set into the sides of bridges at Sturston Mill (for the Up’ards) and Clifton Mill (for the Down’ards).
Unlike football (European or American) or Rugby, you do not score by getting the ball to the opposing teams’ goal. Here the object is to get the ball back to your own teams’ goal. This is the tradition old way of playing football and there is no such thing as a goalkeeper in this kind of game.
The game starts at 2pm post the traditional lunch at the Green Man, the ball is thrown to the waiting crowd gathered in the Shaw Croft car park. This is not a “kick off” as such, the start is called the “turn up” as the ball is “turned” or thrown and being chosen to “turn the ball” is deemed an honour.
The ball is rarely kicked; it generally makes a slow progress in a scrum of players, known locally as a hug. This gives the impression that there are no rules and although it is true that there are few, they are important. Play must avoid private property, religious houses and cemeteries. Although the game can be rough and injury is common, deliberate injury and murder, is no longer tolerated by the town council.
To score or goal the ball, it must be tapped three times against the mill wheel set into the bridge. For this to happen, play is paused when the hug is approaching the goal and straws are drawn to decide who, from one of the local families, will have the honour of trying for a goal. Sometimes however, someone does make a break from the hug to reach the goal before this can take place.
Once the ball is goaled it then becomes the property of the player who scored, as a new ball is used for each new game. If there is a goal before 5pm a new game is started from the Shaw Croft, otherwise play continues until a goal is made or the end time of 10pm is reached.
It is something quite special just to get near the ball and the closest I have ever been was within only two feet or so. Like many others, I was winded in the crush and forced to retire. A friend of mine actually got hold of the ball in his first ever match, beginners’ luck is ever there was but in doing so he near re-fractured his clavicle. He had a painful drive home that day. On my last visit to the match, I assisted in giving first aid to a young man who had passed out in the crush.
The danger of injury as a recognised risk adds a certain excitement to the game and although I am unaware of any evidence to support the notion that this game was once played with either an animal or a human head. While standing on a wall on the edge of the Shaw Croft Car Park watching some five hundred or more local men and women wrestle for the ball. I found myself struck by the terrifying primeval nature of this event that truly sets it apart and makes it such spectacle. I found myself believing, that it once could have been a head.
For further details of the Ashbourne Shrovetide Football please see this website:
This article first appeared in The Hedge Wytch as: Chattering Magpie (Griffith D.B.) 2011 A Grand Day Out – The Ashbourne Shrovetide Football of Derbyshire. The Hedge Wytch. Issue 53 February/Imbolc 2011 pp24-27.
Photography D.B. Griffith 2010.
Text copyright D.B.Griffith 2011.
Reproduction without prior permission of the author prohibited.
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