Each year on Ash Wednesday and the day before, businesses in the town of Ashbourne are boarded up and small children are kept indoors as the Royal Shrovetide Football Match commences.
Also known as the “Ashbourne Game,” the chaotic scrum between the Up’ards and Down’ards from the different sections of the town started hundreds of years ago. The game is mentioned as far back as the 1600s, but many records of the competition were destroyed in the late 1800s, so its exact age is unknown.
The recent era has taken up the game in earnest. In fact, the game has only been canceled twice in its modern history, both times due to national outbreaks of Foot and Mouth Disease. The match even continued during both World Wars, at the request of soldiers who felt that it was exactly the sort of thing they were fighting for.
The game starts on “Shrove Tuesday” (the day before Ash Wednesday, also known as “Pancake Day”) when the ball is “turned up” at 2:00 p.m. from the permanent brick plinth located in an Ashbourne parking lot. The figure who releases the ball is usually a guest, such as the Prince of Wales, who joined in during the 1928 match and walked away with a bloody nose but gave the game royal appellation.
Once the ball, which is made new each year and is usually made of leather filled with cork so that it floats during river-play, the two sides of Ashbourne crash together in what they call the “Hug.” From here on it is the goal of each swarming horde to reach the opposing goal—the goals are represented by millstones three miles apart.
While it is called “football,” that is a generous description. The rules of the game are as follows:
In short, no killing, be courteous to sacred sites, and don’t hide the ball. Everything else goes in The Hug. The game is always celebrated at the Green Man Public House and the winning balls are usually enshrined in pubs around the town.
The game goes for two days, ending at 10:00 p.m. on Ash Wednesday. Anyone is welcome to participate, but the game has strong local roots and it is near impossible for a tourist or visitor to score a goal. However, the Shrovetide does not discriminate, so long as one is prepared for some bruises along the way.