Custom survived: Ashbourne Shrovetide Football

Standard

Keep the ball out of churchyards, the cemetery and the Memorial Gardens Do not trespass on other people’s property You must not intentionally cause harm to others The ball must not be hidden in bags or rucksacks The ball must not be transported in, or on, motorised vehicles.”

So are the rules of the ancient game of Shrovetide in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. Standing at the throwing in stand which for 363 days sits rather pointlessly in the town’s car park the organiser reminded the throng below him these rules….but within 10 minutes it had ended up in the cemetery

Up’ard and down’ard

There is a festival feeling in Ashbourne with town proclaiming the day with bunting. An odd festival feeling with all the shops and houses on the main streets boarded up that is. That said, this is not a war zone but everyone is excited and in the nearby hall a big meal is being held. The crowds await outside. Then after some rapturous applause. Like most mob games football is a bit of misnomer. It was hugged, punched and rolled but rarely kicked. Once I stood there motionless, like a rabbit stuck in headlights, as the ball rolled towards me and between my legs. A few seconds later a mass of men came my way shouting ‘get out the way’ or something like that! I soon jumped to the side and the ball disappeared under a mass of writhing men.

It all starts rather incongruously in a car park at the back of the shops…in truth the only large space in the town. Here is a large platform, redundant for 363 days, but today no card but people. Tourists look over from the edge, in the centre excited and waiting. After the aforementioned announcements as above, the ball was thrown in, or turned up in the local language….and of it went over the heads of the crowd and then disappeared into. The scrum held for a while, someone broke through and then went into the cemetery!

As soon as the ball was retrieved from the cemetery it found its way into the pool beside the park. At first eager members tried to use the branches to precariously perch themselves and lean over the water to get it…I winced…had they not seen the public information films from the 70s…and then plop in the water. It must have been cold..one then two, then three risked the cold depths. Soon there was a struggle for the ball in the water and then a cheer as it was hit skyward. Not enough.

Again the town divides teams into two geographical locations: Up’ards (north of the River Henmore) and the Down’ards (south). This was clearly a necessity to get a team together back in the day but nowadays anyone joins in and it’s a bit irrelevant..

On the head mate

Although called football, the Ashbourne game like many similar games is not often kicked but scrummed. Indeed it appears to have been called hugball, at some time and is believed to date from mediaeval times, although finding exact date is unknown, exacerbated by the fact that in the 1890s the archive was destroyed

One interesting theory states that the ball was originally a severed head thrown into the crowd after an execution – it seems unlikely to be honest!

The current ball is a large and beautiful item, sadly quickly smeared and obscured by the grasp of many hands. Often it is painted, a common image is that of the Cockayne coat of Arms: three cocks. This itself is interesting and was traced in 2012 to a game called La Soule played on the first Sunday of Lent and Easter Monday in the Picardy town of Tricot. Why? Because Tricot’s emblem is three cockerels . Coincidence possibly not and that

What is also unusual is that this is a two day game each day starting at 2 and going on until 10.00pm; but if the ball is goaled before half five it starts all over again! They do like their game! This goal consists of hitting the milestone this goal three times…when done, always under the cover of darkness, cheers erupt and the winner is carried on the crowd’s shoulders back to the pubs in the town.

I’ve never made it too the end mind. The cold keeps putting me off! They are made of tough stuff in Ashbourne.

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