The 'throw in' at The Royal Shrovetide Football Game.
Are you the sort of person who likes to explore a new place and thoroughly immerse themselves in its local history and traditions? Would you enjoy rubbing shoulders with the locals and getting to know about a unique part of their town’s culture? If your answer is yes, then you will almost certainly relish a visit to the picturesque Derbyshire market town of Ashbourne during the time of its ancient, annual Royal Shrovetide Football game in February. (Warm coats, gloves and sturdy footwear are essential!)
Arrive in the morning of Shrove Tuesday or Ash Wednesday and indulge in some delicious cakes and coffee at one of the town’s many quaint cafes (you might wonder why all the shop windows have planks of wood nailed across them and why the roads are closed, but you are about to find out!) Enjoy a stroll through the park where the snowdrops are out and the crocuses are just beginning to open. Walk down St John Street and Church Street, past the beautiful Georgian buildings towards St Oswald’s church with its magnificent spire and enjoy the peace and tranquillity while you can!
Ashbourne Market Place, Derbyshire. Photograph copyright of Eamon Curry under the Creative Commons licence.
At around 1 o clock, you will notice the crowds of excited locals walking towards the town centre and gathering in Shaw Croft car park (empty of cars by now). As 2 o clock approaches, you feel the excitement mount to almost fever pitch as the crowd bellow out Auld Lang Syne and God Save the Queen. All eyes are focused now on the ‘plinth’, on which an honoured guest is holding aloft a large, beautifully painted ball. On the stroke of 2 o clock, the honoured guest throws (‘turns up’) the precious ball into the crowd where it is immediately lost from view. If you manage to set eyes on it again three or even four times during the day, you will be luckier than I usually am!
The ‘hug’ (a hardy and highly competitive group of local men who train all year round in order to be at the peak of fitness for ‘Shrovetide’) push and hustle each other in a rugby style scrum. The rest of the crowd enthusiastically add their assistance by pushing, shoving, and shouting lustily. The two teams are the Up’ards (those born north of the river Henmore) and the Down’ards (those born south of the river). The hug surges around the car park and along the boarded up streets of the town as players strive to break free and begin their long run towards the goals which are three miles apart. Usually the ball ends up in the fish pond before too long and the crowds jostle on the banks to see the intrepid swimmers strike out after it.
Ashbourne during The Royal Shrovetide Football Game. Photograph copyright of Will De Freitas under the Creative Commons licence.
Stalwart spectators and of course the players themselves stay with the game until the ball is goaled, which could be as late as 10 o clock. But you would be forgiven for slipping away when your toes start to freeze and nipping into one of Ashbourne’s many pubs for a warming whiskey and perhaps a steak and ale pie. You will easily be able to find the hug again when you emerge from the pub warm and refreshed; just ask a passing local who will be in touch with the spectators who are still following the hug! If you have the stamina to walk the distance, you might even be lucky enough to see the ball being goaled (banged thrice upon the millstone goal post in the river.) I’m very impressed if you do: I’ve never stuck with it long enough or walked far enough to actually witness a goal!
At last, tired, cold and happy, you wend your way back to your luxury cottage and indulge yourself in a well earned soak….. (in your deliciously hot bath or hot tub I mean, not in a freezing cold river!) You have experienced a truly amazing ancient local tradition and, back at your cottage, you are in just the right place to recover in comfort!