Ashbourne gets ready for historic Shrovetide football

Ashbourne Shrovetide Football
Image caption Ashbourne's Shrovetide football game is more like a huge rugby scrum

A Derbyshire town will host one of the country's oldest "sporting" traditions on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Shops will board up their windows and businesses will close early as the Ashbourne Shrovetide football game takes over the town.

Hundreds of players for each side - called the Up'ards and Down'ards, depending on which side of River Henmore you were born - battle in the streets to get the hand-painted cork-filled ball to goals three miles apart.

The ball is "turned up" - thrown to the waiting crowd - at 1400 GMT and the game often lasts well into the night.

Despite being called a football game, it rarely involves kicking the ball and more closely resembles a huge rugby scrum heaving and pushing its way through the town.

'Blood, spit and tears'

The hug, as it is known, may consist of a couple of hundred players and is a source of great rivalry as to which team is triumphant in each game.

But it is not for the faint-hearted.

One player who has witnessed most aspects of the game is Steve Bloor - a Down'ard by birth, meaning he was born south of the Henmore.

He said: "Being in the hug is a bit like being in a pressure cooker.

"It's hot and noisy. All you can smell is sweat, blood, spit and tears.

"It's like being in a different world."

Bloor now owns the ball he scored in 2009 and has a memory he will never forget: "[Scoring] is the most fantastic feeling to an Ashburnian - it's better than scoring the winning goal in the World Cup," he said.

"There must have been 2,000 people lining the riverbank as the hug pushed towards goal. The noise was phenomenal and as we approached the post I had a feeling that maybe it was my time."

Ashbourne's Shrovetide game is thought to date back more than 1,000 years, though historical records were lost in a fire at the Shrovetide Committee office at the end of the 19th Century.

The modern game takes place over two days and is enjoyed by thousands of people.

Goals are mill wheels set in huge stone plinths on the banks of the Henmore Brook at the sites of two former mills.

To score, a player must stand in the Henmore and tap the ball three times against the wheel.

Image caption Crowds usually gather at the site of the goals to see the ball scored

Scoring means you will be carried back into the town by your team shoulder high and cheered by hundreds of spectators.

Prior to the start each day, a special Shrovetide lunch is held, usually in the game's spiritual home, the Green Man Royal Hotel.

However, organisers decided to move the venue this year due to uncertainty about the sale of the hotel. The lunch will instead be held at the town's leisure centre.

Despite the intense rivalry, Steve Bloor knows it is a good-natured affair. He said: "Yes, it's rough but it's not violent. We all end up with cuts and scrapes and sometimes a bloody nose.

"But once the game ends we're all the best of friends.

"Come Wednesday night, we'll all be out, Up'ards and Down'ards, enjoying a pint together."

The game received royal assent in 1928 when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, turned up the ball.

Prince Charles started the game in 2003.

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