“If Englishmen call this play it is quite impossible to imagine them fighting” – French journalist, 1826
Records show Shrovetide Football has been played in England since the reign of King Henry II way back in the 12th century. The exact origin is unknown although it is said (though unproven) the game started when the heads of prisoners were thrown into the crowd after public executions.
The version played in Ashbourne, Derbyshire is the most famous and is played over Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday every year. Essentially two teams, the Up’ards and the Down’ards have to ‘goal the ball’ on their opposition’s stone – located 3 miles apart at each end of the town.
The rules are read out to the baying teams before the game starts with the ball being thrown out from a purpose built brick platform. This is known as ‘turning-up’ and every year a guest or local dignitary is invite to perform the throw. In 1928 the Prince of Wales visited the event and turned-up the ball. Since then the game has been known as Royal Shrovetide Football and received another royal visit when the current Prince of Wales, Prince Charles received the same honor in 2003.
Reading the rules out does not take long. It is made clear that man-slaughter and murder are not allowed, nor is hiding the ball or putting it in a motorized vehicle. Play is not allowed on private property or building sites, though I saw this rule broken on several occasions, (not least when players fell through a garden hedge). Nearly all the shops in town are boarded up and closed ahead of the game to avoid damage.
Chris Furlong, Laurence Griffiths and I covered the games this year. Chris and Laurence had been there before and gave me a few tips. Despite this it was still hard to imagine a massive group of hundreds of blokes slowly tearing the town up.
On the first day I was a bit of a chicken. Hanging back from the center of the group (known as the hug), I waited with a long lens for the ball to occasionally pop out from the top and fly through the air before being consumed again by the mob. Despite being bizarre to watch it was pretty hard to get a decent picture as for the majority of time you’re just looking at the back of hundreds of heads.
Play can go until 10 p.m. but I had to leave early to cover a more modern version of football that night. It was hard to imagine modern day football rules had had their roots in the street football I’d seen that day, but I was hooked.
The next day when we arrived it was snowing heavily which would make the pictures much more interesting, but taking those pictures much harder.
The ball was ‘turned-up’ by a local butcher (not royalty) and the scrum headed into the town center, past some flats and a building site (remember the rules). I got closer than the day before, too close in fact as at one point a player fell off a wall onto my head as he caught the ball. Play went into a supermarket car park and ‘broke away’ at speed. I joined up with Laurence and spent an hour trudging up hills looking for the ‘hug’ that contained the ball. Rumors swept round as to its location, but before we knew it we were back in the town center asking Police for help – they didn’t know the location of the ball either.
We were pretty cold, wet and tired but decided to stick with it and eventually heard the Up’ards & Down’ards splashing around in the brook. I’m not the fittest bloke and I arrived at the scene puffing and wheezing but just in time to capture the ball being tossed through the water by the specialist ‘river players’ with the teams crowding round on the bank. Spurred on by that rare moment, we joined a group of players and crossed the brook by way of a small concrete ledge and precariously hanging on to someone’s garden fence. The ball entered the river again on the other side of the field and it was Laurence’s turn to be in the right place at the right time (although he very nearly got pushed into the water himself) and he shot some great stuff with the teams battling through the ice cold water, snow and their own sweaty steam.
At this point our cameras were soaked, we were soaked and our clothes were soaked. We had every intention of staying till the 10pm finish time (honest) but shooting had become impossible.
The next day’s UK papers were unsurprisingly dominated by goal pictures from the Real Madrid v Manchester United Champions League match in Spain. Royal Shrovetide Football didn’t get a mention.
Up’ards 1 (Goaled by David Spencer)
Down’ards 1 (Goaled by James Carter)
Editors Note: Michael Regan is a staff photographer for Getty Images. Keep up with him on Twitter (@MichaelRegan) as well as fellow staff photographers Laurence Griffiths (@LolGriffiths) and Chris Furlong (@Chris_Furlong).