Shrovetide: a rough and tumble game

February 12, 2013

Ashbourne, central England

By Darren Staples

There are rules – even if there is no referee to enforce them. One of the ancient ones is said to be: ‘committing murder or manslaughter is prohibited’. Royal Shrovetide Football is not for the faint-hearted, either for players or the spectators who can quickly become caught up in the scrum.

On the face of it, the game played in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday each year will sound familiar to anyone who knows what happens at any English Premiership venue on a Saturday afternoon.

There is one ball, two teams – the Up’ards and the Down’ards – and the goal is to score goals. In these parts, it’s like Manchester United playing Manchester City, with all the passion and pride that comes with it.

But that’s where the similarity ends. The goals are, after all, three miles apart, and the ball is ‘goaled’ by tapping it three times on stone plinth on the banks of the River Henmore. Oh, and it’s played by 200, 300 and even 400 players.

Players don’t have a choice which team they will play for – you are an ‘Up’ard’ or ‘Down’ard’ – depending which side of the Henmore you are born.

It earned its ‘Royal’ moniker when the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII, ‘threw up’ the ball – the traditional way the game is started. In 2003, it continued its links with the monarchy when Prince Charles followed the tradition.

On most weekdays, Ashbourne bustles with tourists drinking in the quaintness of its cobbled Georgian market square. But on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, shops, cafes and pubs close early and are boarded up. It looks like they’re preparing for a riot, which in some ways they are. Not that any of the locals mind.

I spend a large chunk of my time at Premiership football games. It’s bread and butter to get goal pictures. But at Shrovetide, I’ve never managed to get one yet. Not many photographers do. Maybe next year.

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Nice shots, Darren!

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