Ashborne, U.K. is home to a unique annual football game that drew one man across the pond–from Front Royal, VA! / Photos by Michael S. Williams
ASHBOURNE, U.K.– Michael Williams of Front Royal is more than 3,000 miles from home today (Feb. 13) playing an ancient football game through the streets of this historic agricultural town where the goals are three miles apart and among the few applicable rules is one against murder.
Williams learned of the 500-year-old possible forerunner of rugby and American football while shepherding groups of Randolph-Macon Academy students on exchange visits to Ashbourne’s historic Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School (circa 1585). He vowed one day to fly the 6,000-mile round trip and take part. Ashbourne, a town not much larger than Front Royal, lies roughly in the middle of England and is steeped in history dating from Roman times.
The game is unique in that there is no limit to the number of players and lasts up to 16 hours over two days You choose sides according to where you were born – to the north or south of the River Henmoor that runs through the town. Michael, 50, whose family hails from the south of England, is one of about a thousand “Down’ards” who are chasing a solid,cork filled, basketball sized,ball, while roughly a thousand more “Up’ards”, born north of the river, are pushing and pulling and tugging and (sometimes) fighting to score a goal by fording a pond and hitting the ball three times on a plinth where an old mill once stood. This is the equivalent of the end zone and a touchdown.
The game, called “Shrovetide Football,” is played annually on Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day) and Ash Wednesday (our Mardi Gras), and since medieval times begins around noon in the town square where a VIP “turns up” — throws into the crowd — the hand-painted ball at which time everyone has at it.
Meanwhile, store owners prepare for the game by nailing boards across their shop windows to mitigate against property damage. The “hug” or scrum, those closest around the ball, ebbs and flows, north and south, and the hundreds of “Up’ards and Down’ards” push against each other – think of a Redskins’ running play lasting not seconds, but a couple of hours, attempting to drive the ball toward their goal.
Crowds gather on the streets of the small town. Below: Michael S. Williams visiting with locals as he also participates in the annual game.
Williams no doubt has already been dunked in the freezing Henmoor River – the ball, ergo the “hug” or players around the ball – spend some time in the waterway but mainly it is propelled forward through the streets of the town, then across fields and country roads leading to the targeted mill sites..Pause for a moment and imagine five to six hundred sweating players pushing each other in opposite directions. Anyone, at any time, can dive into, or out of, the fray.
While the ball is within town limits, players are known to duck into a tavern for a refresher, then dash back out to support their own side. If no goal is scored by 10 p.m., the game is called.
There are few rules though in modern times, there had to be a prohibition from carrying the ball in a motorized vehicle. One of the few original rules dating way back prohibits murder or manslaughter. “Undue violence” is “frowned upon.” Cemeteries and churchyards are deemed out of bounds.
What the intrepid Michael Williams may not have been aware of before making his trip: as a non-resident, he cannot be credited with scoring a goal!
Editor’s note: Malcolm Barr Sr., a Rockland resident and contributing writer for the Royal Examiner, attended Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in the 1940s and played Shrovetide Football in his youth. He has had no burning desire to play the game a second time, however.