Ashbourne

The historic Derbyshire town of Ashbourne, gateway to Dovedale and home to an annual Shrovetide Football game…

The Derbyshire market town of Ashbourne was effectively established in Saxon times and the name probably comes from the Old English ‘aesc’ and ‘burne’ which mean respectively ash tree and brook or stream. Prior to that, the region was farmed as far back as the Bronze Age.

Ashbourne remained a small and little developed place until the 1700s onwards as it was a convenient meeting point of half a dozen coaching roads. When the Peak District became a fashionable tourist destination, Ashbourne became the self-styled ‘Gateway to Dovedale’ which was just a few miles to the north. It was never really regarded as a destination but as a staging point.

However, a claim to fame is that Bonnie Prince Charlie and his troops stayed in Ashbourne on their way to London (they got no further than Derby though) at which point the Prince declared his dad to be King.

Ashbourne has a literary claim to fame too … George Eliot (the pen name of writer Mary Ann Evans) wrote the novel Adam Bede in 1859 and featured Ashbourne as the town of Oakbourne.

The Church of St Oswald’s was established in Saxon times but was not consecrated until 1241. The oldest surviving part is the chancel. George Eliot described the spire, built in the mid 14th century, as the ‘finest single spire in England‘. It has an impressive collection of alabaster figures.

Ashbourne Grammar school known locally as QEGS (Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School) was established in 1585 and was based in the fine building near the centre of the town. However, early in the 20th century it was moved to Green Road where it continued to develop. In the 1970s, when the comprehensive system was introduced, the secondary school and grammar school amalgamated. The school has always had a very good reputation.

In 1985 the Ashbourne Highland Gathering was established by the local pipe band who had found that the competitions in which they took part were poorly organised. The gathering is now a successful event and raises money for local charities as well as being hugely entertaining with the incredible sound of the pipe bands, highland gales style events and a hill race.

For accommodation in the Ashbourne area or indeed any other part of the Peak District, take a look at the range of self-catering cottages on offer from Easy Cottages.

However it is not as well established or ancient as the sporting event for which Ashbourne has become famous – the shrovetide mob football match, which is not football as we know it (Jim) …

A Mediaeval Football Match
By Kathryn Burton

Ever thought of football as an extreme sport?

Welcome to the world of Royal Ashbourne Shrovetide Football (Shrovetide)!

I was introduced to Shrovetide when I met my then-to-be husband, a determined Shrovetider, and asked him how he’d broken his nose!

Shrovetide football is played in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, England, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday every year, as it has done annually from at least the 12th Century (not even the world wars stopped play.)

Both the inventors of Rugby, and Association football, had strong Ashbourne, and Shrovetide connections.

The goal posts are 3 miles apart, there is no pitch, just the streets of the town, the surrounding fields, and of course, the river Henmore, which is perhaps the most important area of play. This is because the goal posts are at the site of the old mill wheels of the two mediaeval water mills, upstream and downstream from the town, respectively.

The ball (brightly painted leather, about the size of a medicine ball) is ritually thrown to the mob (known as “The Hug”) at 2 p.m. each day, and is then fought over by two teams, the “Uppards”, who try to score it at the upstream goal, and “Downards”, who try to score it at the downstream goal, until 10 p.m.

As the ball is made of leather, with a stuffing of sawdust, as it gets wetter, it gets heavier. It also swells. Thus, by the time it has reached one or other of the goals, most of its paint has been rubbed off, and it is a sorry sight as it is victoriously carried aloft back to The Green Man, to mark the end of play.

(If the ball is goaled before 5 p.m., a second ball is turned up, but normally the ball is not goaled until well after 5 p.m., if at all.)

Loyalties are decided by birth, if you’re born upstream, or from an upstream family you’re an Uppard, and vice versa. (This differs from most ball games, in that the aim is to score an “own goal”)

There is no limit to the number of players on each side, and very few rules, so the game is very rough and tumble. It is all played in good humour, so deaths are infrequent, but it is a great spectacle to watch.

As the field of play is the whole town, spectators get caught up in events, but it’s quite safe – there are refuges in enclosed areas to ensure only players have any chance of injury.

It can be quite disconcerting, however, to see 4 to 5 hundred men in rags and hobnail boots rampaging towards you!

The river banks form a fantastic viewing platform for watching river play, and cheers go up from the crowd whenever the ball is seen.

It can be cold, but luckily Ashbourne has many historic pubs, cafes and restaurants to get you warm, and the pubs open each day before the game starts, and do not shut until well after the game finishes.

The locals are very welcoming, and someone in the crowd will always explain the finer points of play, as they’re intensely proud of their unique heritage.

I am a long term follower of Royal Ashbourne Shrovetide Football, and I married into the family which has the highest number of goals scored of any Uppards family. I also have strong Downards family connections.

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