Royal Shrovetide

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What do you do on Shrove Tuesday? Eat pancakes is probably the answer…. But not if you’re from Ashbourne, a small market town in the shire, where Shrove Tuesday marks the start of the two day Royal Shrovetide Football.  It’s not a football game like you might imagine, firstly the goals are three miles part, rather than 11 players per team, it’s more like 500 and the match doesn’t last a mere 90 minutes, no, this game starts at 2pm each day and finishes when a goal is scored or at 10pm.

The game being played in Ashbourne dates back to the 12th century, the origins of the game are unknown and one theory is that the ball was originally a severed head, thrown into the crowd after an execution, but more likely it’s a variant of a mob ball game which has medieval roots.  The two teams are made up of Up’ards and Down’ards – traditionally you are an Up’ard if you were born north of the river Henmore and a Down’ard if you were born south of the river. More commonly townsfolk follow their families allegiance – my family are Up’ards and even though 2 of my children were born in Derby (south of the river) they are most definitely and unquestionably Up’ards! 

Up’ard’s goal the ball at Sturston and the Down’ard’s score at Clifton.  The goal ‘posts’ are in the river Henmore where mills once stood, now the mills are long gone so the goals are marked by mill stones mounted on plinths in the river.

The game has been known as “Royal” since 1928, when the then–Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) turned up the ball and in 2003 the game was started by another Prince of Wales; in this instance His Royal Highness Prince Charles.  The person given the honour of ‘turning up the ball’ (or throwing it into the crowd) does so from a raised plinth on Shawcroft Car Park. 

Photo thanks to Dove Computer Solutions Ltd

Before turning up the ball, there is a luncheon held at the Leisure Centre. This year Lady Sky and Lady Tigerlilly joined me along with several hundred other players and supporters to toast the Queen, sing the Shrovetide anthem and enjoy a traditional lunch. The turner-up is then escorted and carried aloft to join the hoards of people waiting at Shaw Croft to see the ball being thrown into the crowd of players.  John Webb was given the prestigious role of turning up the ball on Ash Wednesday this year, he is a local man who has achieved many sporting accolades including playing for the England Youth Football team in the 1960’s and coaching the Norton Tug o War team to Gold Medal achievement. 

John Webb – Turned up the ball on Ash Wednesday 2018


The ball itself is a work of art, handmade leather balls which are then painted by local artists to depict the turner up’s personal interests and achievements.  During play all the paint comes off, so if scored the ball is painted with the scorers name and date, and if not scored it is re-painted for the turner up’er to keep. Although there have been years when the ball disintegrated during play, especially in the late 1800’s when the ball was often kicked to pieces or cut up. 

Ball being goaled at the stone plinth, photo thanks to Dove Computer Solutions Ltd

The 2018 game ended in an overall draw, the Down’ards goaled on Shrove Tuesday and the Up’ards on Ash Wednesday, it was another fabulous year for this very traditional game; the Ladies are already planning their return for the 2019 game.

Shrovetide Anthem (written in 1891)

There’s a town still plays this glorious game
Tho’ tis but a little spot.
And year by year the contest’s fought
From the field that’s called Shaw Croft.
Then friend meets friend in friendly strife
The leather for to gain,
And they play the game right manfully,
In snow, sunshine or rain.


‘Tis a glorious game, deny it who can
That tries the pluck of an Englishman.

For loyal the Game shall ever be
No matter when or where,
And treat that Game as ought but the free,
Is more than the boldest dare.
Though the up’s and down’s of its chequered life
May the ball still ever roll,
Until by fair and gallant strife
We’ve reached the treasur’d goal.


‘Tis a glorious game, deny it who can
That tries the pluck of an Englishman.

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