Sports you’ve never heard of: Royal Shrovetide Football

By Jeremy Wright (Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: April 4, 2012

Are you a fan of the simple pleasures of watching a well-fought game of rugby? Or the crisp sound of heads clashing on the football field? Then here’s a sport you should both hear of and stay clear of!

The place: Ashbourne, England

The name: Royal Shrovetide Football

To answer your first question, Royal Shrovetide Football is an epic sport played by every man, woman and child of the small village of Ashbourne. The game is split into two eight-hour halves starting at 2 p.m. and ending at 10 p.m. The goals are old mills positioned three miles apart called Clifton and Sturston. Shrovetide Football is played once a year, the first half on Shrove Tuesday, the first day of Lent and the second half on Ash Wednesday, which is 46 days before Easter.

According to, the leather and cork ball is hand painted before every game, which often takes about three weeks to complete. The design will often represent the dignitary who will start the game. The ball is thrown, or “turned up” as they say, from a brick podium called the plinth in the middle of town.  The ball lands in the hoards of people from both teams surrounding the area and the violence begins. The teams are divided into the Up’ards who were born North of the Henmore River and the Down’ards who were born South of the river.

When the ball is in play both teams form giant mobs referred to as “hugs.” These are similar to the scrum in rugby. The only difference is a scrum in Rugby doesn’t have 3000 people and the fist fights are kept to a minimum. These are the only hugs in the world shopkeepers have to board up their store fronts to protect against. The hugs attempt to push the ball either North or South towards their respective objectives, hoping to give the old mill a hearty bang three times and tally a goal. In the event of a goal being scored before 5 p.m., a new ball is turned up and play restarts. The Up’ards have won the majority of the games with only one to three goals being scored altogether.

Shrovetide Football dates back to the 1600s. There is a reference to it in a 1683 publication, but Ashbourne only has records going back as far as the 1890s because a fire claimed the Royal Shrovetide Commitee Office. You can find all the games from 1891 at The game has been only completely cancelled once, in 2001, due to a nationwide outbreak of Foot And Mouth Disease. The game was reportedly even played in the trenches of battle during both World Wars.

The rules for this game are simple, but important.

– No trespassing on other people’s property.

– The ball must not go into the churchyards, memorial gardens or building sites.

– You must not intentionally cause harm to others.

– The ball must not be hidden from view in bags or rucksacks.

– The ball must not be transported in a motorized vehicle.

– A goal is scored when it is tapped three times onto one of the stone plinths. If it is scored before 5 p.m. then another ball may be thrown up.

– Play ends at 10 p.m. and the ball is returned to the Green Man public house (hotel and pub) where the final speeches are presented.

Other than that, the ball can be kicked, thrown or dribbled up and down the streets, and players are free to get as rough as they need, without killing anyone, to gain possession. Next time Vancouver wants to riot, perhaps someone should throw up a ball and let the fun begin.