Shrove Tuesday is a day favoured by tossers but in the Derbyshire town of Ashbourne, they have a different way of celebrating the day before Lent. The Royal Shrovetide Football Match, the royal tag was earned when the future Edward VIII started the game in 1928, involves two teams, the Up’ards and the Down’ards, names based on which side of the Henmore Brook they hail from.
Although proceedings kick off on Shrove Tuesday when the ball is “turned up” from a plinth at Shaw Croft. Play often continues until Ash Wednesday, as it did this year. The object of the exercise is for the Up’ards to try and work their way towards Sturston Mill while the Down’ards’ goal is at Clifton Mill, three miles away.
Because of the numbers of players involved, there is little in the way of finesse or any opportunity to display dazzling footwork. It resembles a mass brawl and the ball makes little progress for hours on end. If a goal is scored before 5.30pm, another ball is released and play restarts in the town centre. A goal scored afterwards and before the 10.00pm curfew, ends play for the day.
Unsurprisingly, play finished goalless on the Tuesday but on Ash Wednesday a breakthrough was made, just before the 10pm scheduled finish, when Richard Smith raced through and tapped the ball three times on the stone plinths at Clifton Mill to secure a famous victory for the Down’ards.
The origins of the game have been lost in the mists of time, the records of the Royal Shrovetide Committee were destroyed in a fire in the 1890s, but the first match is thought to have taken place in around 1667. Legend has it that the original ball was the head of an unfortunate who had just been executed.