A Medieval Football Game, Still Going Strong

In Ashbourne, England, thousands of residents join in an annual match that has defined the town for centuries.

A scene from this week’s Shrovetide football match in Ashbourne, England.

Photo: Fabio De Paola for The Wall Street Journal

At 2 p.m. last Tuesday, in a parking lot in the ancient English market town of Ashbourne in the Derbyshire Dales, an elderly man climbed onto a brick plinth in front of a crowd of some 3,000 people. As two Union Jacks flapped in a chill wind behind him, he held up a large, ornately painted leather ball. Those closest to him could see that it had the date and his name—Andrew “Cluck” Lemon—inscribed on it. Then he threw the ball where the crowd was packed the tightest, into a knot of muscular men dressed in sports jerseys and tracksuits.

The ball promptly disappeared into the scrum, known colloquially as “the hug.” There was no boundary between the players and spectators, who pressed in to take pictures and videos, shrieking and breaking for cover if the action erupted in their direction. For a few minutes, the only clue to the ball’s location was a small, slow-moving cloud of steam where the players panted over it. They were specialists in what was called “hug play”; around the edges of the action, meanwhile, there prowled lithe young men who excelled in running. All year long, they had been dreaming of receiving a pass from a team-mate in the hug and sprinting more than a mile—across meadows, over fences, through ponds—to the post where they would “goal it,” winning glory for the rest of their lives.

Andrew ‘Cluck’ Lemon, this year’s ceremonial ‘turner-up,’ displays the decorated ball before the start of the game.

Photo: Fabio De Paola for The Wall Street Journal

It was Shrove Tuesday, traditionally a day of feasting and merriment before Lent’s 40 days of austerity. In England, raucous ball games have been a Shrovetide pastime since the 12th century, enjoyed in particular by the lower orders, though deprecated by the gentry for their disorder and violence. Out of these amorphous games, played as local custom and inclination dictated, evolved the modern sports of football (”soccer” in America) and rugby, which are now played all over the world. Only in a few English towns does Shrovetide football still exist in its original form: a game played not on a field but in public spaces, involving an unlimited number of players who can use their hands and feet to move the ball.

In a fast-changing world, Shrovetide football radiates a consoling timelessness. To the residents of Ashbourne it is a key to their history,. A pre-match song dating back to 1891 says it well: “Through the ups and downs of its chequered life/ May the ball still ever roll/ Until by fair and gallant strife/We’ve reached the treasured goal.” “I hope we’ll be playing this great game of ours for generations to come,” declared an emotional Mr. Lemon just before he put the ball in play.

2020欧洲杯APPAshbourne’s game is played on Shrove Tuesday and the following day, Ash Wednesday, from 2 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. If the ball is goaled before 5:30 p.m., play restarts in the town’s center, while if a player scores after 5:30, the game stops for the day. At the end of the second day, the team that has scored the most goals wins. Given that the goals are three miles apart, the scores are usually low: Only once in the last 15 years have more than two goals been scored.

2020欧洲杯APPThe rival teams, the Up’ards and the Down’ards, traditionally consisted of natives born north and south, respectively, of the Henmore River that runs through the town. These days the geographical distinction no longer holds, since all of the town’s babies are born in the same maternity hospital. “So today your family ties determine whether you’re an Up’ard or Down’ard,” said Tonya Waring, the owner of The Coach & Horses pub on Dig Street, and a Down’ard.

Ashbourne resident Tonya Waring holds the ball her father Darren scored with in 1996.

Photo: Fabio De Paola for The Wall Street Journal

2020欧洲杯APPThe Shrovetide match, known by some as “Ashbourne’s Christmas,” is fundamental to the town’s sense of itself. Fierce and sapping, the game is a local rite of passage. Just about every family has an ex-player in its ranks and usually one or more players in the hug.

Although there is nothing in the rules to proscribe participation by women, usually only men play; even the “turner-up,” a local personage of some importance who throws the ball into the crowd to start the action, is always a man. Records show, however, that three women have goaled the ball over the years. In 1891, when authorities tried to crack down on the game, a local history records that a certain Mrs. Woolley “hid the Shrovetide ball under her voluminous skirts” and threw it out to the waiting players from the window of a building in the marketplace.

2020欧洲杯APPToday, the game seems to generate enough tasks, posts, roles and titles to include almost all of Ashbourne’s 7,800 residents, men and women alike. The town council is heavily involved with organizing the match. (The mayor, Ann Smith, describes herself on the council website as “a passionate Down’ard.”) Then there is the Shrovetide Football Committee, made up mostly of ex-players, which referees the game and, inevitably, resists attempts to change or modernize it. One of the committee’s tasks this year was deciding whether the Henmore River, its banks overflowing after the wettest winter in Britain in more than a century, was in bounds. They decided it was.

The committee also selects the year’s two turner-ups and organizes ceremonies to deepen and extend the occasion, such as a pregame roast beef lunch for 300 at the Ashbourne Leisure Centre. The lunch was rich in reminiscences about the records and landmarks of Shrovetide football, an opportunity for the British to indulge their great fondness for obscure facts and pedantry. You go to it to learn who was the youngest player ever to goal the ball (Frank Mansfield, age 13, in 1955), when was the last time the game had to be abandoned because the ball got lost (1960) and how many Ashbournians have enjoyed the honor of both goaling the ball and turning it up (nine, the latest being Mr. Lemon).

Because the flow of the game is so unpredictable, most shops in Ashbourne board up their windows while it’s being played.

Even the ball has its own traditions. Two of the most popular souls in town are Simon Hellaby and Tim Baker, local painters who each year meticulously paint the match balls with scenes relevant to the life of the turner-up. Then, after the paint has been scraped or washed off in match play, they do it all over again, so the ball can be presented to the goal-scorer as a memento. If no one manages to score, the ball goes instead to the turner-up. Vivid and colorful match balls from years past are highly prized, and more than a dozen hang above the bar in The Coach & Horses.

Because the flow of the game is so unpredictable, most shops in Ashbourne board up their windows while it’s being played. Even so, the game is a great boost to the local economy. For a whole week in what would otherwise be the off-season, pubs and hotels are full of visitors drawn by the prospect of time-traveling back to the Middle Ages. “The actual game days are always the biggest business days of the year,” said Ms. Waring. “On Thursday, people come out again to celebrate the end of the game and to discuss the result. And then they do it again on Saturday.”

At 8:30 p.m. on Tuesday evening, after hours of pitched battle in the town and the bog-like fields nearby, the Up’ards goaled the ball. But on Wednesday, with only 40 minutes left to play, the Down’ards equalized, and the game finished in a tie, 1-1.

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