Super Subcultures

The Pain and Pride of Britain’s Wildest Ballgame

Every Shrove Tuesday, the entire town of Ashbourne erupts in a brutal football match where almost anything goes and the rare glory of scoring a goal is savored for generations.

The Pain and Pride of Britain’s Wildest Ballgame

Long to reign over us, God save the Queen,” chants a choir of thousands on a patch of the English Midlands, their eyes fixated on a single podium. There’s a roar of applause, a wave of sound loud enough to ripple through the streets as cold breath hangs in the air. Then, silence, a fleeting moment that seems to last two lifetimes before a ball is thrown skyward and falls to grasping hands. The pagan game of Shrovetide has begun.

For 363 days of the year Ashbourne, Derbyshire, is just another town, a gatekeeper to the Peak District. It has a population slightly over 8,000 with a pub named after a duke or a dragon on near enough every corner, emblazoned with Union Jack flags. It’s a place where pensioners spend their golden years gazing through coffee shop windows at elaborately garnished cakes, buying Sunday roasts from butchers named Nigel’s or Mark’s — not the typical High Street chains. But for two days in late winter, locals take to the streets of Ashbourne when the town becomes a living folklore. It’s called Shrovetide football, and few things compare to it.

Game balls centuries old and passed down through the generations adorn fireplaces and hang from the ceiling of local pubs. But the game is changing. Today, the vast majority of people witness Shrovetide through video clips on five-inch screens, a distorted view that condenses the two days into montages of bloodied noses and battered bodies.

Each year photos of grimaced faces and thrown elbows are splashed across newspaper pages, as Shrovetide is paraded as a brutish game watched by goading spectators, like the main event in a Roman coliseum or a NASCAR race when each person is impatiently waiting for someone to crash in the most chaotic way possible. The true meaning of the game — a two-day revel for a town that would otherwise be just like every other — is lost. Towns like Ashbourne are reduced to a middle England stereotype — the swath of the country that never recovered from the mid-80’s mining strike, whose portrayal in the media is a shallow parody.

“Shrovetide is a slice of old England, the truest sense of old England that’s available today,” said Tim Baker, 44, as he sits in his office, driving rain distorting the view of the town center through the window behind him. Baker has been the Shrovetide match ball painter for 28 years, decorating the pumpkin-sized ceremonial ball with emblems of heritage — the Crown Jewels, a family crest, or in some years, the portrait of a local legend. “It’s older than any conventional sport that people have curtailed to a pitch, table or court. Shrovetide created those sports, but you can’t keep Shrovetide confined, and that’s why it still exists. This is a game that was never meant to be confined…”

Players battle for the ball as thousands join in the Shrovetide football match in 2016. (Photo by Nigel Spooner)

It’s near impossible to trace the roots of Shrovetide to a specific date, but versions of the game go back 800 years or more. A 1683 poem by Charles Cotton references “two towns, that long that war had raged / Being at football now engaged,” and the oldest match ball in Ashbourne dates to 1883.

It’s played every Shrove Tuesday — what’s known in some parts of the world as Mardi Gras — and Ash Wednesday, from two p.m. until ten p.m. each day, a sprawling football match played by thousands. The town is broken into two teams, decided by which side of the River Henmore they were born in — Up’Ards to the north, Down’Ards the south. The aim? For the Up’Ards to goal the ball at Sturston Mill in the south of the town, and the Down’Ards, Clifton Mill to the north, two end-zones found three miles apart and separated by freezing rivers, sprawling farmland and the cobbled streets of the town. Schools are closed and shop windows are boarded up in a scene closer resembling an impending hurricane than a town-wide tradition.

There are two types of players. “Hug players” are the ones in the thick of it, those who push the scrum back inch by inch. Then there are “the runners,” sprinters who wait on the outskirts looking for the ball to break from the mass, a fleeting opportunity to run it to the other side.

“You need stamina and speed if you’re a runner, but if you’re a hug player, you need to be strong,” says Kurt Smith, 33, someone who knows better than most. Smith goaled the ball for the Up’Ards in 2017 — a rare thing in a game where two days of play can sometimes remain goalless. “If you’re playing in the hug all day you need to be out training maybe twice a week, for months in advance really.”

A goal is recorded by tapping the ball three times against a marker, after which the scorer is lifted on their teammates’ shoulders and carried into town to be gifted the winning ball. To Smith, that moment remains a blur.

“I can remember everything about that day except scoring the goal itself,” he says. “It was about eight p.m. when I goaled. I’d spent a long, hard day in the hug and followed the ball through the fields, but when you’re chasing that goal and it happens to you, it’s quite overwhelming.”

The ball becomes an immediate family heirloom, proof that the owner fought and won in a game where, supposedly, there is only one rule: murder and manslaughter are prohibited.

“That rule is complete and utter bollocks, to be quite honest with you,” says Simon Hellaby, in a thick Derbyshire accent. Far from a free for all, Shrovetide is ultimately a feat of endurance, arguably one greater than any Tough Mudder or marathon.

Sometimes, a goal scorer is chosen, an honor earned through years of hard work on the pitch. “You can’t just turn up and score a ball,” says Hellaby. “You have to earn your stripes.”

Other times, it’s a stroke of luck, a twist of fate that can see the ball land at your feet at the eleventh hour. Often, it’s those stories that resonate most.

In 2008, Up’Ard Matthew Burtonshaw took the ball home during the game’s second day. The day had turned to night and the ball was within spitting distance of the Clifton Mill goal, the Down’Ards having battled for nearly eight hours to push it that far.

Suddenly, the ball broke from the hug and landed with Burtonshaw, who sprinted a distance of almost two and a half miles over well-trodden fields of ankle-deep mud and waist-high water. At around 9:55 p.m., five minutes before play was to cease, he goaled.

Hellaby is a lifelong Up’Ard who shares similar stories — “from the time you could walk you wanted to play the game,” he says, earnestly — and traces his family’s Shrovetide glories back over a century. Now retired from the game, Hellaby goaled in 1997, five years after his older brother did the same.

“Somebody of my size and age nowadays can’t run anyway,” he admits. He’s now older, greyer, happy to sit and rest on the local fame Shrovetide has afforded him. “Now, my son is a mirror-image of me and that’s just as important as me playing the game. Shrovetide is a right of passage, and we’re not keepers of the game. We’re custodians for the next generation, and now it’s their turn to keep it for the generations after that.”

“It’s strange,” he then says, pausing to think for a moment. “I don’t think there’s anybody who has the game in their heart who’d give their ball up for anything, not even for a million pounds, but once you take the ball away from Ashbourne it loses all its significance. That’s how it is, it only matters to the people of Ashbourne.”

“Other small towns like ours probably don’t have the same strength of community that Ashbourne has,” says Monty Lyons, 27. Lyons is one of the driving forces behind the Up’Ards, part of the current generation whose father goaled in 1993. “Shrovetide carries through the generations, whether it’s your Dad who has scored, or your uncle, your granddad. You want to emulate them, you’re told how much of an achievement it is, and because of that you know everybody in the town. Everybody plays, and you interact with people from when you’re 12 or 13 years old.”

Ashbourne, to some, offers the definition of a quiet life, a kind of tranquility that city dwellers dream of as they cram themselves on to yet another Tuesday morning train. For others, it’s all too quiet, a place that exists without change as the world around it ebbs and flows. It exists in contrast, somewhere elders can’t wait to retire to and the youth are sometimes yearning to leave.

“It’s a bloody ghost town for the rest of the year to be honest with you, there’s not a lot that happens around here,” laughs Hellaby.

All Ashbournians return for Shrovetide, though. Derbyshire natives, Australian immigrants and Japanese tourists travel halfway across the globe to stand in the rain. “Shrovetide is a slice of heritage, and if we lose this, Ashbourne will lose its identity because we’re not known for anything else,” says Baker.

And the game is at risk of being lost. There’s a certain “lack of respect” in the modern game thinks Hellaby, a growing competitiveness and rivalry that’s a world-weary example of modern times and, in part, something of their own doing.

“It’s the world in general now, isn’t it? There’s contempt for everybody and everything,” he says. “In some ways the game’s got worse, but we helped create our own monster by putting it on social media and inviting film crews here from across the world. Of course, people look at that and they think, ‘oh, we’ll go and have a piece of that.’

“The more people that play the game the fiercer it becomes,” thinks Baker. “It’s always been competitive, but people were more laid back about it in the past. Now, they will fight until they are literally at the goal.”

The Up’ards battled the Down’ ards in the 2017 Shrovetide match. (Photo by Ian Francis)

“To keep playing the game we have to adapt to the constraints of the modern society that we live in,” he goes on to say. “But it’s harder to do now than it was ten years ago. We have all manner of red-tape insurance policies that costs money, and it would be foolish to say that there aren’t a body of people who would like to see it stopped.”

“It would be wrong for us as a generation to lose it for those before us. Those who wrote letters home from the trenches of the first and second world war. Soldiers, Ashbourne lads, saying ‘when we’re in the trenches we want to know that back home, at two p.m., you’re going to be playing Shrovetide.’ And sadly, some of those soldiers never came back to Shrovetide…”

“Shrovetide football is the living spirit of this town,” Baker goes on to say. “It’s the only game that unites a town by dividing it into two. It’s two teams, in this case the Up’Ards and the Down’Ards, fighting it out for a ball, but if you try to meddle with Shrovetide or stop it then 100 percent of this town would stop you. It’s what unites everybody by division.”

“It’s a brutal game, you’d be foolish to think that you can get in the hug and not come out with a knock, but it’s not an excuse to be brutal,” says Baker, and however you view it, the game does display a stereotypically masculine image. Two thousand men clashing in the driving rain, their collective sweat evaporating into the grey winter skies as mouths gasp for breath. And it is overwhelmingly men who play the game, as wives, mothers, sisters and girlfriends provide energy drinks and painkillers from the sidelines. In its recorded history only three women have ever goaled the ball: Doris Muggleston (1943), Doris Sowter (1943) and Nora Wibberley (1957).

“There’s no rule whatsoever that says women are not allowed to play, but when this game began, maybe in prehistoric times, maybe in the Victorian times, women did not do this sort of thing,” says Baker. “Equal opportunities didn’t exist in the 1800s and things have moved on, but the game carried on down a traditional line. And do I think any women will ever goal the ball? The answer is no. I think it’s just too male orientated.”

Do you feel that men who play the game are needing, or wanting, to prove themselves as men through Shrovetide? I ask.

“What do you class as a man?” replies Baker. “As a gay man myself, do I think some of the men that play the game are what we’d think of as men? No, I don’t, and if I ever goaled a ball I wouldn’t be the first gay guy to do it. I’m not mentioning any names, though…”

The Shrovetide match gets heated on Ash Wednesday, day two of the game, in 2016. (Photo by Doug Blane/Peak District Pictures)

Baker is openly gay, and has been involved with the game for nearly 30 years. He sees it as a place where questions of identity that divide people the rest of the year can be forgotten.

“That’s why Shrovetide is the spirit of this town,” he says. “It eliminates all the social and secular crap that builds up in life. People say that you have to be like this or like that, that you have to sleep with certain people, do a certain job or have a certain religious belief. The game doesn’t care about all of those things, it doesn’t need it. We have that crap everywhere else in the world. So there you go. You don’t have to be a heterosexual, beer-swilling, thick-necked man to play Shrovetide.”

“The stereotype around Shrovetide was it’s a rough game for thugs, played by violent angry people,” groans Tom Ferry, 35, a hug player for the Up’Ards. He has a broad stature earned through over 20 years of playing Shrovetide. Ferry is working towards de-stigmatizing the game and the wider culture that surrounds it, speaking at local schools with academics and other members of the community. “But it’s not what people say. It’s played by normal, everyday people who have jobs, who have families, who have lives. I get to teach people that who you are is not determined by what you do, that Shrovetide is an inclusive game for all people; it’s something that transcends class.”

“A few thousand people battling to score a ball? When you sit down and think about it, it’s very bloody stupid,” admits Hellaby. “It’s a very surreal game. It’s one that creates friends, it creates enemies, there are families who are divided for those two days a year and certain people won’t speak to you for life, just because of which side you play for, but the thought of scoring a ball creates something quite indescribable in the people here.”

And what about those who never get a chance to rap the ball against the post? In a town of 8,000, only a handful have been lucky enough to score, and for those who never got the chance, it can be a heavy burden.

“There are a lot of people like that in Ashbourne,” says Hellaby. “A lot of people. That can really make or break a man, I’m afraid. It means that much to people. When they realize they’re not going to score you can see the pain in their eyes. You can see their souls drain away as they walk away thinking ‘well, is this ever going to happen to me?’ But not everybody can achieve that glory.”

“It’s a dream you have from being a young lad,” says Jason Rowland, a local rugby captain and talented young player who has yet to get his chance at goal. “From the first time you’ve ever seen a ball scored you want to do the same. It’s in your soul, that is the pinnacle in Ashbourne. It means everything to you, your family, your wife, everything.”

But the goals are not as important as the game itself, which Ferry calls “a great leveler.”

“Your players are your teammates,” he says. “For those two days they’re not lawyers, soldiers or coppers, they’re your mates. Your comrades. You feel grateful for living in a community where people care for each other and look out for each other. You hate each other for two days of the year, but it’s not real hate. If you saw one of your mates in trouble, regardless of whether he was an Up’Ard or a Down’Ard, you would do anything to help that person, and then laugh and joke about it in the pub afterwards.”

In essence, that’s what Shrovetide boils down to: the unifying power of a pint. “If the world was run on the ethics of Shrovetide,” says Baker, “it would be a better place, I believe.”