This week saw the arrival of Shrovetide, which took us all a little by surprise for some reason. Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday are two days where something a little bit crazy happens in the town of Ashbourne, where Matt lives. They play a little game of Football. Only we’re not talking the football you and i know as football, we’re talking Medieval Football. And we’re not talking ‘they’ as in Matt and a few friends, we’re talking about the entire town. Let me explain a little about the game. It’s at least 350 years old, but possibly has been played here as long as 1000 years. The pitch in this case is more or less the entire town (which gets shut and boarded up for the duration of the game). There are two teams, the Up’ards and the Down’ards, depending upon whether you were born up or down river depends who you play for (it’s for locals, though in practice anyone can join in). The objective is to get the ball to your opponents goal (two posts) and score. The goals are about three miles apart and to score you hit the ball three times against a post (this is called ‘Goaling the ball’). There are precisely two rules: no use of motorcars (a new rule, needless to say) and ‘manslaughter is illegal’. Thats it. Anything else goes.
This was the first time i’d been to see the game, owing to general busy-ness last year, and prior to that being unaware of the games existence. The game starts at 2pm on the car park, where the ball is presented to the crowd, which measures in the thousands. The ball is then ‘turned up’ ie - thrown into the game playing public, at the heart of which are the entire rugby team, and then anyone else hard enough to join in. This is not a game to be played by those who are afraid of getting a battering. The game is essentially one giant rugby scrum, with unlimited players, no rules and two days to play in. Oddly there’s no separation between players and crowd, so if the ball ends up leaving the scrum and moving toward you - you run or you find yourself with up to a couple of hundred guys charging at you intent on getting the ball to respective goals. This is more than odd when you consider that OAP’s, children and whole families are there in force, and could at any point get trampled all over.
Of course this means that it’s often very hard to tell where the scrum is, because the scrum tends to move very very slowly (it’s a bunch of guys fighting over a ball) and they get swallowed by the crowd. However there is a way to know where the ball (and the scrum) is - you look for the steam. Where the steam is, the scrum is.
I was only there until about 5pm on the Tuesday, but in that time they’d knocked a steel lamp post over, flattened a fence, played through someone’s garden, played for about 45min on a road junction that hadn’t been closed for the occasion, swarmed over somebodys pick up truck in a housing estate and then ended up right back at the car park. Fortunately they do pay for any damage they do.
The BBC’s report (with photos) on this years game can be seen here, and you can also learn more about this brilliant tradition. After 16hrs of play, the final score was… nil - nil. No goals this year!