Everything you need to know about the most ridiculous sport: Ashbourne Shrovetide Football

Board up the businesses and keep the children indoors, it’s Shrovetide Football time. Such has been the sentiment in the town of Ashbourne the day before Ash Wednesday for centuries.

But this isn’t your usual football/soccer match. And while similar to rugby, it’s a heckuva lot bigger affair…played in city streets and a river.

The clash between the so-called Up’ards and Down’ards from different portions of the town is mentioned as far back as the 1600s. Only two outbreaks of Foot and Mouth disease have cancelled the contesting of the match in recent centuries, as it remains a pivotal part of local customs, tradition, and history.

Here’s how it starts: The day before Ash Wednesday, the ball is “turned up” at two o’clock p.m. from it’s brick resting place in an Asbourne parking lot. These days, a celebrity of some sort does the honors of releasing the ball.

Prince Charles being lifted up holding the ceremonial ball before starting the ancient Royal Shrovetide Football.
Prince Charles being lifted up holding the ceremonial ball before starting the ancient Royal Shrovetide Football.

A new ball is made every year and painted to honor the person who “turns up” the ball. Traditionally, the ball is a leather sack filled with cork so that it will float when it inevitably ends up in the river.

Shrovetide football, 1887. (Photo source/Wikimedia)
Shrovetide football, 1887. (Photo source/Wikimedia)

After the turning up, the Up’ards and the Down’ards meet together in “the Hug.” Following this initial violent exchange, the goal of the game is to move the ball to the opposing goal, as it were. And ow far away is this goal? 100 yards, as in football? Try three miles.

The rules of the game are few, but the official guidelines read.

Committing murder or manslaughter is prohibited. Unnecessary violence is frowned upon.
The ball may not be carried in a motorised vehicle.
The ball may not be hidden in a bag, coat or rucksack, etc.
Cemeteries, churchyards and the town memorial gardens are strictly out of bounds.
Playing after 10 pm is forbidden.
To score a goal the ball must be tapped 3 times in the area of the goal.

The game takes two days to complete. It ends at 10 pm. on Ash Wednesday. And theoretically anyone can participate, not just those from Ashbourne—although someone from Ashford is always chosen to score the goal.

Interestingly, there are some bizarre origin stories of the game, including the theory that the ball was originally the severed head of a prisoner.

If you’re wondering how the ball is moved, per the Derby Telegraph: “Though it is legal to kick, carry or throw it…it generally moves through the town in a series of hugs, like a giant scrum in rugby, made up of dozens if not hundreds of people.”

So that’s how the ball moves; this way and that in the middle of a mob. And if you want to know what “scoring a goal” looks like, a player (again, a pre-selected local) has to hit the ball off a millstone on the appointed mill—Clifton Mill for the Down’ards, Sturston Mill for the Up’ards).

Now, this is certainly a “picture (in this case, video) is worth a thousand words” situation. So, behold the wonder that is Shrovetide Football, and shed a tear that your town is without a tradition so grand.

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