Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide 2013

PUBLISHED: 13:09 26 April 2013 | UPDATED: 14:30 26 April 2013

A proud John holds the commemorative ball high in the air as 2pm approaches

A proud John holds the commemorative ball high in the air as 2pm approaches

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Ashbourne’s Royal Shrovetide Football was accompanied this year by an exhibition of memorabilia. Catherine Roth reports...

Andrew Eyley photographed the match

Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football takes place on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday every year. Whilst the game is played with a ball and the aim is to score goals, it is there that any similarity ends with the traditional game of football. Both days see the game played for eight hours – from two in the afternoon to ten in the evening. The playing area is also much larger than a conventional football pitch as the goals stand three miles apart and the game can take players and spectators through the town’s streets, over local fields and even into the river. It perhaps comes as no surprise therefore that, in preparation for the games, many of the town’s shopkeepers board up their windows. The game begins with the turning up of the ball – this year local builder John Tomkinson and local butcher Nigel Brown shared the honours – when the ball is thrown into the air and into the ‘hug’, a large group of players whose aim is to reach their goal.

Which of the two teams people belong to is generally assumed to depend on whichever side of the Henmore Brook they were born. Those born to the south are Down’ards whose goal is at Clifton Mill, whilst those to the north are Up’ards whose goal stands at Sturston Mill.

For many Ashburnians the game is part of their heritage and this year an exhibition of Shrovetide memorabilia was held at the Town Hall. This was a celebration of the town’s annual event and provided a nostalgic trip back in time.

Tim Baker, a local historian, lifelong fan of the game and proud Down’ard, is one of the small team of enthusiasts behind the exhibition. It was he and Trilby Shaw who first came up with the idea. Tim says, ‘It was a privilege to stage the exhibition. A lot of the items never really get seen publicly. We thought it would be a good idea to put on a display whilst raising money for the game.’

Exhibits ranged from a collection of Shrovetide balls, including the oldest known surviving ball from 1883 loaned by Michael Blake, a Vespa scooter loaned by Alan Brown and customised with Shrovetide images, paintings of Shrovetide loaned by the Shrovetide Committee, to newspaper cuttings, photographs and film footage of past games. Also on display was a selection of engraved glassware from Derwent Crystal and limited edition Royal Crown Derby commemorating both the turning up of the ball by HRH Prince of Wales in 2003 and the 75th Anniversary of HRH Edward Prince of Wales turning up the ball in 1928. Tim says, ‘It’s a common fallacy but the game was not made royal in 1928 but in 1922 when the people of Ashbourne sent Princess Mary a Shrovetide ball on her marriage to Lord Lascelles. She accepted the ball as a wedding gift and confirmed patronage of the game.’

Preparations for the exhibition began back in September when sourcing and collating information and exhibits began. When people heard about the forthcoming event many were keen to loan their own memorabilia creating the largest ever Ashbourne Shrovetide exhibition. However, it was not only the artefacts that provided a fascinating glimpse into the game’s history at the exhibition but the stories shared by Up’ards and Down’ards.

Tim Baker and Simon Hellaby, both official ball painters for the game, were also keen to talk to visitors about their involvement with Shrovetide Football. Simon painted the Tuesday ball whilst Tim painted Wednesday’s as he has done for the past 23 years. Tim said, ‘When I was 16, Philip Tomlinson, the ex-Chairman of the Shrovetide Committee, asked me to paint the ball. To every Ashburnian it’s the ultimate honour.’ The balls take about three weeks to paint and include images that reflect the life of the person who will be turning up the ball as well as depicting the state crown and union flag. After a lively game the balls can sometimes come back quite bare. Whoever goals the ball however retains it as a memento and can choose to have it re-painted back to its former glory.

Shrovetide Football runs in the families of both Tim and Simon. Tim says, ‘My great grandfather goaled a ball in 1909. I saw the ball in an antiques shop and paid £600 for it – it’s part of my family history.’ Simon, his brother, father, grandfather and great grandfather have all goaled balls. Stories like these brought the exhibits to life, providing a potted history of the game.

Despite appalling weather this year’s game attracted the expected enthusiastic following and ended with honours even – Up’ard David Spencer scoring on the Tuesday and Down’ard James Carter on the Wednesday. However, although the game is over for another year and it’s now safe for shopkeepers to take down their boards, there will be a chance to relive past memories with a public film show this April. This will include films from 1921–1986 with never before seen footage of Stanley Matthews turning up the ball in 1966.

Shrovetide rivalry is evident in Ashbourne, but the game is an event that ultimately brings the town’s community together whilst keeping tradition very much alive.

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