Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football

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Every year on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, chaotic scenes erupt in the streets and streams of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, England, as a mob of rowdy players frantically try to take control of an oversized football. The game, also known as “hug ball”, has little similarity to football and few rules —shoving and pushing are essential part of the game. Especially peculiar is the size of the playing field and the length of play. The two goalposts, served by millstones, are located by 3 miles apart and the game lasts for sixteen hours spread over two days.

Shrovetide ball games have been played in England since at least the 12th century. The Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide has been played in the Derbyshire town since at least 1667, although the exact origins of the game are unknown became a fire at the Royal Shrovetide Committee office in the 1890s destroyed all the old records. Now there is just one macabre version, according to which the original ball was a severed head tossed into the waiting crowd following an execution. The ball played today in Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide is, thankfully, made of cork which helps the ball to float when it inevitably ends up in the river.

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Photo credit: Christopher Furlong/The Guardian

The game is played between “Up'Ards” and the “Down'Ards”. The Up'Ards are those town members born north of the town, while Down'Ards are those born south. Unlike traditional method of scoring where players score at the opponents goal, the attempt here is to carry the ball back to their own goal. The ball is rarely kicked, only carried, generally moving through the town in a series of hugs, like a giant scrum in rugby, made up of dozens of people. Once the goal is reached, which is a single millstone on the banks of Henmore Brook, the ball is tapped three times against the post for a goal to be counted.

The game starts each day at 2 pm and last until 10 pm. If the goal is scored before 5 pm a new ball is released and play restarts from the town center, otherwise play ends for the day. There is no limit to the number of people who can take part or the size of the playing area. The game takes place throughout the town, although certain areas such as church and cemeteries are avoided. Unfortunately for businesses, the streets are part of the playing area which forces them to board-up their shops’ front to keep property damage to a minimum. Getting injured is part of the game. When the then Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) turned-up for the 1928 game, even he suffered a bloody nose.

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Photo credit: Will De Freitas/Flickr

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Photo credit: Will De Freitas/Flickr

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Photo credit: Will De Freitas/Flickr

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Photo credit: Will De Freitas/Flickr

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Photo credit: Will De Freitas/Flickr

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