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I particularly associate this seasonal story with my teenage years; with young love and old friendships; with boozy afternoons in deepest Winter; with a mouse and a very drunk ITV film crew (mmm, perhaps best to draw a veil over that particular afternoon?!?)

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Ashbourne is a town close to where I was brought up in Matlock Derbyshire,  and the remakable Royal Shrovetide Football Match occurs annually on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday.

Shrovetide ball games have been played in England since at least the 12th century. The game isn’t exclusive to Ashbourne, with over 50 towns across the country previously playing forms of the game, however Ashbourne is one of very few who have continued to play it.

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The Ashbourne game, also known as hugball, has been played from at least c.1667 although the exact origins of the game are unknown due to a fire at the Royal Shrovetide Committee office in the 1890s which destroyed the earliest records.

One of the most popular origin theories suggests the macabre notion that the ‘ball’ was originally a severed head tossed into the waiting crowd following an execution. Although this may have happened it is more likely that games such as the Winchelsea Streete Game, reputedly played during the Hundred Years’ War with France, were adaptations of an original ball game intended to show contempt for the enemy.

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One of the earliest references to football in Derbyshire comes in a poem called Burlesque upon the Great Frost c. 1683, written after the English Civil War by Charles Cotton, cousin to Aston Cockayne, Baronet of Ashbourne (1608–84):

Two towns, that long that war had raged
Being at football now engaged
For honour, as both sides pretend,
Left the brave trial to be ended
Till the next thaw for they were frozen
On either part at least a dozen,
With a good handsome space between ’em
Like Rollerich stones, if you’ve seen ’em
And could no more run, kick, or trip ye
Than I can quaff off Aganippe.

—Charles Cotton (1630–87)

(Believe It or Not: Mmm, the reference to Shrovetide football played between “two towns” in Derby has regularly been credited as being the source of the term “local derby” still used  for local football rivalries today…)

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The Shrovetide game is played over two days, starting each day at 2.00 pm and lasting until 10.00 pm. If the goal is scored (locally, if the ball is goaled) before 5.00 pm a new ball is released and play restarts from the town centre, otherwise play ends for the day.

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Despite the name, the ball is rarely kicked, though it is legal to kick, carry or throw it. Instead it generally moves through the town in a series of hugs, like a giant scrum in rugby, made up of dozens if not hundreds of people. When the ball is goaled, the scorer is carried on the shoulders of his colleagues into the courtyard of The Green Man Royal Hotel.

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The two teams that play the game are known as the Up’Ards and the Down’Ards. Up’Ards traditionally are those town members born north of Henmore Brook, which runs through the town, and Down’Ards are those born to the south of it.

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Each team attempts to carry the ball back to their own goal from the turn-up, rather than the more traditional method of scoring at/in the opponents goal.

There are two goal posts 3 miles apart, one at Sturston Mill where the Up’Ards attempt to score (see below).

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the other at Clifton Mill where the Down’Ards score (below).

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Although the mills have long since been demolished, part of their millstones still stand on the bank of the river at each location and indeed themselves once served as the scoring posts. In 1996 the scoring posts were replaced by new smaller millstones mounted onto purpose-built stone structures, which are still in use to this day and require the players to actually be in the river in order to ‘goal’ a ball.

The actual process of ‘goaling’ a ball requires a player to hit it against the millstone three successive times. This is not a purely random event, however, as the eventual scorer is elected en route to the goal and would typically be someone who lives in Ashbourne or at least whose family is well known to the community. The chances of a ‘tourist’ goaling a ball are very remote, though they are welcome to join in the effort to reach the goal. When a ball is ‘goaled’ that particular game ends.

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The game is played through the town with no limit on the number of players or the playing area (aside from those mentioned in the rules below). Thus shops in the town are boarded up during the game, and people are encouraged to park their cars away from the main streets.

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The game is started from a special plinth in the town centre where the ball is thrown to the players (or “turned-up” in the local parlance), often by a visiting dignitary. Before the ball is turned-up, the assembled crowd sing Auld Lang Syne followed by God Save the Queen. A tradition anthem is also sung at a pre-game ceremony in a The Green Man. It was written in 1891 for a concert held to raise money to pay off the fines ordered for playing the game in the street!

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.

Chorus

‘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.

Chorus

‘Tis a glorious game, deny it who can

That tries the pluck of an Englishman.

The starting point has not changed in many years, although the town has changed around it; as a consequence, the starting podium is currently located in the town’s main car park, which is named Shaw Croft, this being the ancient name of the field in which it stands.

The game has been known as “Royal” since the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) turned-up in 1928. The Prince suffered a bloody nose turning up the ball. The game received ‘Royal Assent’ for a second time in 2003, when the game was once again started by the Prince of Wales, in this instance HRH Prince Charles. On this occasion, the Prince threw the ball into play from a raised plinth. It is traditional for the dignitary of the day to be carried aloft from the old restaurant at The Green Man, down the stone stairs and into the Shawcroft to the plinth.

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The game is played with a special ball, larger than a standard football, which is filled with Portuguese cork to help the ball float when it inevitably ends up in the river. It is now hand-painted by local craftsmen specially for the occasion, and the design is usually related to the dignitary who will be turning-up the ball. Once a ball is goaled it is repainted with the name and in the design of the scorer and is theirs to keep.

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If a ball is not goaled it is repainted in the design of the dignitary that turned it up and given back to them to keep. Many of the balls are put on display in the local pubs during the game for the public to view; traditionally these pubs are divided by team (The Wheel Inn being a popular Down’Ard base, and the Old Vaults for the Up’ards, for example).

There are very few rules in existence. The main ones are:

    • Committing murder or manslaughter is prohibited. Unnecessary violence is frowned upon.
    • The ball may not be carried in a motorised vehicle.
    • The ball may not be hidden in a bag, coat or rucksack, etc.
    • Cemeteries, churchyards and the town memorial gardens are strictly out of bounds.
    • Playing after 10 pm is forbidden.
    • To score a goal the ball must be tapped 3 times in the area of the goal.

Glossary:

The following are words and phrases used at the game, with a brief explanation of their meaning:

  • Turner-up: the person who starts that day’s game
  • Turning up: the act of throwing the ball from the “plinth” into the crowd of waiting players to start a game
  • Hug: the scrum-like formation that naturally forms as the Up’Ards and Down’Ards battle for the ball
  • Break: when the ball is released from the hug and play moves quickly
  • Runners: players that wait on the outside of the hug for the ball to break in order to collect the ball and cover as much ground as possible in the direction of their team’s goal. There are selected runners for each team and they train regularly throughout the year, usually by running from goal to goal
  • River play: as the name suggests, this is a reference to the sections of the game played in the river; as with runners there will be members of the team that specialise in river play. It is possible for the entire game to be played solely in the river
  • Clifton: the Down’ards goal location
  • Sturston: the Up’ards goal location
  • Duck:lLocal colloquialism used as a friendly greeting, for example “Do you know where the ball is, duck?” Comparable words from other regions would include “mate” or “pet”
  • The Green Man Royal Hotel: name of the pub/hotel where the pre-game dinner was hosted and speeches given; the turner-up was carried from here on the shoulders of the players and over to the Shawcroft.
  • Shrovie: slang for Shrovetide.
  • “Down wi’ it”: often shouted by many onlookers supporting the Up’ards or Down’ards, mainly women. To force the ball down in the centre of the “hug” thus slowing down the progress of the opposing team who are trying to throw the ball clear to their “runners” so they can make a “break” towards goal. This would typically happen when a team has won that day or the previous day and wish to force a draw in the game becoming overall winners that year.
  • Plinth: from where the ball is “turned up” (thrown) to start a game

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Knocks the current game of football into a cocked hat eh???

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