For England's Ashbourne, Shrovetide football is 'in our blood'

Players from the Up'ards and Down'ards teams compete for the ball during the annual Royal Shrovetide Football Match, in Ashbourne, Britain, February 13, 2024. REUTERS/Carl Recine/ File photo

ASHBOURNE, England (Reuters) - For two days every year, residents of the English market town of Ashbourne set aside friendships in favour of geographical rivalries and family ties to play Shrovetide football, a ferocious and chaotic game that's centuries old.

"For a lot of the people, it is the highlight of the town's year, there are some families who live and die for Shrovetide," said Ashbourne native Richard Bott, who played the game for decades until his mid-50s. "It's in your blood, I suppose."

Traditionally played on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday deep in the heart of the Derbyshire Dales, the Royal Shrovetide Football game sees hundreds of players compete to move the ball toward goal posts that are three miles (5 kilometres) apart.

The locals clamber over fences, through muddy fields and into the River Henmore. The game is more rugby than football, with a large, round leather ball thrown or pushed through a giant scrum, called the hug.

"The hug smells awful. Sweaty bodies and beer," Bott said. "And cigarettes it used to be. Not so many cigarettes now."

The town is split into two teams -- the Up'Ards and Down'Ards. Most historians trace the Ashbourne game's origins back to the mid-1600s.

The town is the pitch, and the list of rules succinct. A longstanding rule? Murder and manslaughter are prohibited.


Most shops closed early on Tuesday before locals headed to two gathering points to share pre-game pints, in one of the best weeks for the pub industry.

"We'll take a lot more money, this week keeps the pub going probably for the whole year," Hayley Williams said from behind the bar of The White Swan.

Robyn Wright, supporting the Up'Ards, hollered from atop a picnic table: "This game is a celebration of our town. It can get us through the tough times."

"We must always remember the greater the adversity, the greater the glory."

While some women do participate, most players are young and male, some with the cauliflower ears and massive necks of seasoned rugby players. Many don camouflage pants and military boots as if going to battle.

"If you asked, 90% of people in Ashbourne would work Christmas to get Shrovetide off," said 21-year-old Luke Massey, who was "gutted" to sit out this year's game due to injury.

"It's like our World Cup," added 19-year-old Up'Ard Brandan Ham, who planned to nip into a pub for a pint at some point during the gruelling eight hours of action.

Tuesday's game travelled through town, with the ball periodically popping up above the heaving sea of players.

Around 9:30 p.m., 30 minutes before close of play, Will Nash muscled through the hug to "goal the ball" by tapping the goal structure three times for the Up'Ards. The hero Nash was then carried on his team mates' shoulders back to the Green Man pub.

The game was set to resume on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Lori Ewing; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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