Have you ever thought of football as an extreme sport?
Welcome to the world of Royal Ashbourne Shrovetide Football (Shrovetide)!
I was introduced to Shrovetide when I met my future husband, a determined Shrovetider, and asked him how he broke his nose!
Mardi Gras football is played in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, England on Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday every year, as it has done every year for at least the 12th century (even the World Wars have not stopped playing ).
The inventors of rugby and association football had strong relationships with Ashbourne and Shrovetide.
The goalposts are 3 miles apart, there is no pitch, just the city streets, the surrounding fields and of course the Henmore River which is perhaps the most important playing area. Indeed, the goal posts are located at the site of the old mill wheels of the two medieval watermills, respectively upstream and downstream of the city.
The ball (brightly painted leather, the size of a medicine ball) is ritually tossed to the crowd (known as “The Hug”) at 2 pm. every day, and is then contested by two teams, the “Uppards”, who try to score it on goal upstream, and “Downards”, who try to score it on goal downstream, until 10pm.
As the ball is leather, with sawdust padding, as it gets wetter it gets heavier. It swells too. So by the time he has achieved either goal, most of his paint has been rubbed off, and it’s a heartbreaking sight as he’s victoriously brought back to The Green Man, to mark the end of the game. .
(If the ball is targeted before 5 p.m., a second ball is lifted, but normally the ball is not targeted well after 5 p.m., if at all.)
Loyalties are decided by birth, whether you are born upstream, or from an upstream family, you are an Uppard, and vice versa. (This differs from most ball games, in that the goal is to score an “own goal”)
There is no limit to the number of players on each side, and very few rules, so the game is very difficult and tumultuous. Everything is played in a good mood, so deaths are infrequent, but it’s a great sight to watch.
As the playing field is the whole city, spectators get caught up in the events, but that’s pretty safe – there are shelters in closed areas to ensure that only players have a chance of getting injured.
However, it can be quite disconcerting to see 4-5 hundred men in rags and studded boots lashing out at you!
The banks of the river make for a fantastic viewing platform from which to watch the river play, and the cheers of the crowd rise whenever the ball is seen.
It can get cold, but luckily Ashbourne has plenty of historic pubs, cafes and restaurants to warm you up, and the pubs open every day before the match starts and don’t close until well after the match is over.
The locals are very welcoming and someone in the crowd will always explain the intricacies of the game as they take great pride in their unique heritage.