Wednesday 23 May 2018

Here’s everything you need to know about the Shrovetide football match

Here’s everything you need to know about the Shrovetide football match

3 months ago

Here’s everything you need to know about the Shrovetide football match

3 months ago


Every year, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, a game like no other kicks off in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.

The Royal Shrovetide football match is a relatively lawless, rugby-football hybrid extravaganza, where hundreds of players try and get the ball to goals that are three miles apart.

Scoring involves jumping in the local river, and manslaughter is explicitly a no-no – this is the story of the Ashbourne Shrovetide football match.

How it works

A large crowd of people go for the ball, some on each other's shoulders
Each game can last as long as eight hours (Joe Giddens/PA)

Th match begins when someone, usually a semi-famous local, chucks a cork-filled ball into a crowd from a permanent plinth in the town’s main car park at 2pm, known as “turning-up”.

The ball is made in the town and hand-painted to honour the dignitary.

Then hundreds of gathered people try and get the ball to their goal by pretty much any means necessary.

Players fight over the ball in Ashbourne (Joe Giddens/PA)
Players fight over the ball in Ashbourne (Joe Giddens/PA)

The matches last until 10pm both days or when a goal is scored if it’s after 5.30pm.

If a goal is scored before then, a new ball is released from the starting point again.

The rules

Several hands reach for the ball
The ball can be kicked, carried or thrown (Rui Vieira/PA)

There are very few rules. Although it’s nicknamed football, none of the familiar traditions of that sport apply.

The ball can be kicked, but it rarely is. Usually it is carried or thrown between dozens of people trying to get their goal.

The goals themselves are three miles apart, and both are in the river that runs through Ashbourne, Henmore Brook.

Potential scorers have to jump in to hit the ball on their respective scoring post three times to score.

Men crowd a stream, and hang off of a house to chase the ball
The game inevitably reaches water (Rui Vieira/PA)

To accommodate, the centre of town shuts for two days and businesses board up their windows, but there are some extra rules to keep things slightly dignified.

The ball can’t be hidden, driven anywhere, or enter cemeteries or churchyards.

And, reassuringly, manslaughter or killing people on purpose is not allowed either.

The teams

Shrove Tuesday
It’s the Up’Ards vs the Down’Ards

As lawless as it might look, there are two teams, and the one you’re on depends on where exactly you were born or live.

You’re an Up’Ard if you’re from north of Henmore Brook, or one of the Down’Ards if you were born south of it.

Men jump in river after the ball
Getting wet is inevitable (Joe Giddens/PA)

There are no limits to the teams’ sizes though, and visitors to the area make up the numbers too.

However, it would be pretty unusual for a non-local to score – that’s usually decided ahead of time by key local players as the ball makes its way to the goal.

The history

Black and white photo of men scrabbling river, and ball being thrown into it
The ball is thrown into the Henmore back in 1969 (PA)

There are records of a similar game being played around this time of year across the UK as far back as the 12th century, but the Ashbourne game is suspected to have been played since 1667.

It got its royal title after Edward VIII, who was then Prince of Wales, opened the game in 1928.

But more recently, the Prince of Wales threw the ball into the crowd to start 2003’s match.

Prince Charles rides on the shoulders of two men in rugby shirts walking through the down. He holds the ball above his head
Prince Charles “turned up”the ball back in 2003 (David Jones/PA)

The goals, which players must hit three times to score, used to be mills either side of the town.

They’ve since been demolished, and in the 90s purpose-built goals using some of the original millstones were erected in Henmore Brook.