Ashbourne Shrovetide Football Match

Ashbourne has a crazy two day activity which has launched its reputation. In Ashbourne everyone knows everyone else and it’s not because they are nosy, just very friendly. At a certain time of year they get even friendlier!  Shops are boarded up in case of mis-adventure and pubs throw open their doors to welcome anyone in for safety, to get away from the scram or to celebrate their winnings. It’s time for the annual Shrove tide football match, which sweeps through the town, and the whole village takes part in a rough and tough match of footie which lasts two whole days.

The game has receieved Royal recognition by two Princes of Wales when in 1928, Prince Edward ‘turned up’ the ball and in 2003, so did Prince Charles

Unlike a conventional game of football, it is played over two, eight hour periods and is played in the Derbyshire town of Ashbourne every Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. The goals are 3 miles apart, which again makes it totally unique, and are the sites of two different mills and there are very few rules. In fact, as you may have guessed, it’s nothing like football at all, more like a rugby scrum.

The ball is a leather outer which is hand sewn onto the ball, which has a cork inner to allow it to float in the river. The Royal Shrovetide balls are unlike conventional footballs and are a much larger and heavier ball. It is usually hand painted before the game. However by the end of the game, the painting has usually worn off. The goaler who gets to keep the ball can pay to have it repainted if they want and if the ball is not goaled, the person who ‘turned it up’ (threw it into the air) gets to keep it. It is annually ‘turned up’ from a stone plinth especially made for the occasion on Shaw Croft car park in Ashbourne town centre. It is thrown into the air and then something called a ‘hug’ happens. Basically a large group of players try to move it to their goal and push against the opposition.

The names of the teams are decided on your birth and on which side of Henmore Brook you came into the world on. Those who are born on the South side are affectionately called the Down’ards and they try to take the ball to the Old Clifton Mill, which is one of the 3 mile wide goals . Those born on the North side are called Up’ards and they try to get the ball to the old Sturston Mill.

The rules as such are quite short, but must be followed.

– You must not intentionally cause harm to others.

– You must not trespass onto other people’s property.

-The ball must not go into churchyards, memorial gardens or building sites.

-The ball must not be hidden from view in bags or rucksacks.

-The ball must not be transported in motorised vehicles.

– The ball is goaled when it is tapped three times onto one of the stone plinths. If it goaled before 5pm then another ball may be thrown in.

-Play ends at 10pm and the ball is returned to the Green Man public house.

It’s not totally clear when the custom began but there is documentation that the annual Shrovetide football match was played even around in the 1600’s. There isn’t much paperwork due to a fire at the Royal Shrovetide committee office in the 1890s, but it is known that the game wasn’t exclusive to Ashbourne at that time. Over 50 towns across the country played the game, however Ashbourne is one of the very few who continue to keep up the tradition.

There have only been to cancellations and both times would you to the nationwide foot and mouth disease. The first one was in 1968 when a mini version of the game was played on the park and the second time was in 2001 when the game had to be cancelled altogether. In 2001 players still met at the plinth to sing the songs and pay tribute to this great game despite it not being played.

The football match even continued throughout both world wars which was requested by the men who were fighting them. Many say it was what the Ashbourne men were fighting for, to keep Ashbourne’s great tradition alive.

Important times of the day to recognise are 12:00 PM where around 400 people attend the pre-game launch and hold speeches at the Green Man pub and the Black’s Head Royal Hotel.  At 1:50 PM the ball is carried down Digs Street towards the plinth and it is traditional for the game starters to be lifted onto the shoulders of a few players. At 2 PM the National Anthem and Auld Lang Syne are sung and the ball is ‘turned up’ from the plinth on Shaw Croft car park. The ball must be scored before 5 PM or another ball has to be turned up and at 10 PM the game is over. If no goal has been scored the ball has to be taken back to the Green Man.

Spectators arrive from miles around to watch the annual game. Many people follow the ball all day which can pass through any street, over fields and usually ends up in the river. If you are on holiday up here when the football match is on, it can look very frightening at first and sometimes the hug can change direction very quickly, so be warned and be prepared.

Apart from that it is an absolutely amazing spectacle to witness and one you won’t ever forget, making your holiday want to definitely remember. There are no other places in the Peak District which have this custom proving Ashbourne is one of a kind, as are the people who live there.