Lane Sainty discovers a sport for the masses
If there is anything a small town loves, it is having a claim to fame, no matter how tenuous the connection. For instance, Cootamundra reminds anyone who will listen that Donald Bradman was born there, and Ardlethan dubiously claims to be ‘the home of the kelpie’. However, few Australian towns carry a claim to fame as bizarre as that of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, England, which plays host to the annual Royal Shrovetide Football Match.
The match occurs on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, pitting the Up’ards, or people born north of Henmore Brook, against the Down’ards, born south of the river. An inexplicably central role is played by the Royal Green Man Hotel as the venue for the official pre-match luncheon. Clearly, these two aspects alone make the game an unofficial contender for the most English thing ever.
The match begins at 2pm in a car park in central Ashbourne, when the ball is thrown into the waiting scrum, usually consisting of hundreds of people. (Fun fact: The person chosen to turn up the ball has twice been royalty, with Prince Charles taking on the task in 2003.) The two teams then battle to ‘goal’ the ball by tapping it three times against one of two mill stones, which are located approximately three miles apart. The game ends either when the ball is goaled after 5pm (if the ball is goaled before this time, a new match will begin) or when 10pm is reached.
Other than a few self-explanatory directives such as the prohibition of murder and manslaughter, there are alarmingly few laws governing the game. The ball must not be carried in a motorised vehicle or hidden in a coat or bag and play must not infringe on private property, memorial grounds, or churches.
Many may deride this tradition as useless, ridiculous or plain confusing, but Royal Shrovetide Football has been played for a very long time. Records show that the match has been played ever year bar two since 1891, with records prior to this being destroyed in an 1890 fire. This means that it was played throughout both World Wars, surely an indicator of just how enjoyable and important this strange game is. Furthermore, the match attracts many tourists to Ashbourne each year, a good thing, considering there appears to be little other reason to visit the town. Clearly, some towns deserve their claim to fame.