Ashbourne's shrovetide football
Ashbourne is an attractive old market town situated at the southern end of the Peak District of Derbyshire.
Normally Ashbourne is a peaceful little place, but on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday of each year all signs of peace disappear and it takes on the appearance of a town beleaguered. The visitors arriving without knowledge of what goes on during these two days might easily be mystified, for the shop windows will be boarded up and the entire population of Ashbourne will be wearing their oldest clothes. There is a sense of excitement and holiday feeling everywhere, for it is on these two days that the ancient game of Shrovetide Football takes place.
No one knows when the game was first played at Ashbourne, but it was probably as early as the 16th century, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
Followers of conventional football will find no resemblance in the Ashbourne version. It is certainly played by sides, but there all similarity ends.
Through the centre of Ashbourne runs a little brook called the Henmore, which has an important bearing on the game. If one is born on the north side of the Henmore, then one plays for the Up’ards; while those born on the south side are Down’ards. Any number of people can take part, and age or sex is no bar. The game is started by the ball being thrown up — usually by some well-known personality — at 2 o'clock in the afternoon of each of the days. The game is played through the streets and even in the Henmore brook itself — in fact anywhere, until a goal is scored. The goals are three miles apart — Down’ards in the village of Clifton, and Up’ards at Sturston. The game is played until the ball is goaled or until 12 midnight; if it is not goaled by then, the ball is handed over to the police on behalf of the Committee. To have scored a goal is considered a great honour in Ashbourne, and anyone doing so is allowed to keep the ball.
The ball used for each of Ashbourne's Shrovetide Football games is, of course, no ordinary ball. It would have to be something special to stand up to the ill-treatment it receives during its hectic day of life. Each year two new ones are produced (one for Shrove Tuesday and one for Ash Wednesday) by craftsmen living in the town. They are made from shoe leather, soaked in water until workable, and then filled with cork dust; finally they are painted with the crest, trade or profession of Ashbourne's guest of honour who will be throwing up the ball, together with his name and the date.
Nothing has ever stopped the playing of the game, and during the present century the tradition has survived two world wars. Whatever the weather, in sunshine or rain, snow, frost or fog, the game takes place.