Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football
Each year on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, Ashbourne becomes a war zone! The majority of the ablebodied men, women and children take to the streets to play what is probably the largest football game in the world! - The two teams number in the hundreds, and the football pitch is 3 miles long, 2 miles wide and has the town of Ashbourne in the middle!
Shops are boarded up, only an idiot (or an unsuspecting visitor!) would park his or her car anywhere in the town!
The origin of this game is lost in the mists of time, and it is thought to date from Elizabethan times.
The game is played by those Ashburnians who were born on the north side of the Henmore river - the Up'ards, against those born on the south side - the Down'ards.
The kick-off or "turning up" of the specially made and painted ball takes place from a brick built plinth in the town centre at the Shawcroft carpark, by a local or national figure. (It was the then Prince of Wales - later Edward VII - who turned up the ball in 1928 and thus giving the game its "Royal" title.)
Our current Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Charles, turned the ball up in 2003.
The game starts each day at 2 pm when the ball is "turned up" in the Shaw Croft Carpark (behind the supermarkets in the town centre). The game then lasts until 10 pm. If a goal is scored before 6 pm, then a new ball is "turned up" again and a new game started. If the goal is after 6 pm then the game ends for that day.
The two goals are situated 3 miles apart - one at Sturston, and one at Clifton. The goals were originally the mill wheels at two local mills, the miles are long since gone, the goals now being two purpose built structures.
A goal is scored by tapping the ball three times against a marker board attached to the stone goal plinth.
The rules are quite complex when it comes to scoring the goal - the actual person who scores is pre-chosen. When the ball reaches the goal, the game is paused and the ball is then handed to the member of that team who has been given the honour of actually gaoling the ball. Gaoling consists of knocking the ball against the goal stone.
Its a bit like cricket - difficult to explain - no doubt a native Ashburnian could explain them to you better then I can.
Needless to say - the pubs remain open all day during the game, all the shops and banks have wooden barriers up against their windows and some close for the day (looks like Beirut a bit). If you did not know about the game and you drove into Ashbourne - you would probably think that there is a major case of civil unrest going on!
If you visit Ashbourne on these days - be careful where you park your car!! If you find a street that has no parking restrictions but no cars parked there - think on, the locals know something you don't!! There's a reason why wildebeest go around in large herds!!
The balls used for the Shrovetide games are made by Ashbourne man John Harrison. The ball is larger than a conventional football and, unlike its modern counterpart, is rarely kicked. The hand-sewn, leather balls are filled with Portuguese cork chippings (to help them float when they land in the River Henmore).
The balls are usually painted in a design relevant to the person turning up the ball. The balls are real works of art and take about a month to paint. If a ball is gaoled, then it will become the proud possession of the person who has gaoled it. If no-one goals it, then the person named on the ball gets to take it home.