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It's a brisk, wet morning in Ashbourne, England, and the pint of ale being poured by the bartender at the Green Man pub has the tawny tint of an heirloom watch. He pushes the glass to a burly yob in a ripped rugby sweater who shouts, "To Up'ards!" At the other end of the bar a doughty yob whose T-shirt sports a snarling British bulldog raises a pint the lovely walnut color of fine old furniture. "To Down'ards!" he barks.
These yobs are not toasting Midlands pharmaceuticals but rather Royal Shrovetide Football, an ancient game that annually pits Ashbournians from north of the River Henmore against their counterparts down under. A sort of eight-hour rolling brawl, it's a cross between rugby, soccer and civil war.
Every Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday in this Georgian market town, hundreds of players lock themselves into an enormous scrum—or hug—then kick and squirm their way through narrow streets, fishponds and irate gardeners' flower beds. In a series of hard-fought scrimmages that are beautifully brainless if not heroic, the grunting, tussling, spluttering tangle of arms and legs scrambles for possession of a 3�-pound, cork-filled leather ball.
There are no referees, no penalties and no holds barred. People have been known to crack ribs and break legs—and that's just the spectators. Fierce private fistfights flare up about every three minutes. "Shrovetide football is called a friendly game," said Mark Heath, one of the dozens of bobbies on hand for this year's festivities, "but it's really about settling old scores."
Rules are few: Churchyards or cemeteries are off-limits; the ball cannot be conveyed by a motorized vehicle; play must end by 10 p.m., regardless of whether either side has scored; manslaughter is strictly prohibited. In the old days the goals were two water mills, each a mile and a half from the center of town. You "goaled" the ball by tapping it three times against the mill wheel. Eventually the mills were torn down, and in 1920 stone posts were erected—in the Henmore. To goal the ball, you have to get soaked.
Similar games are played in towns throughout the British Isles—in Kirkwall, on Scotland's Orkney Island, it's called the Ba' Game and takes place each Christmas and New Year's Day; the Cornish towns of St. Ives and St. Columb come out for Hurling the Silver Ball. Though the origin of such contests is strongly disputed, many believe they date from before the Norman Conquest and that the ball was originally a head, tossed to the crowd after a public execution. In 1314 Edward II tried to ban the competitions from London; 35 years later Edward III attempted to outlaw the game altogether because it was disturbing his archery practice. In the 16th century Philip Stubbs described Shrovetide football as "bloody murdering practice, rather than a fellowly sport or pastime." Indeed, the Ashbourne event was briefly banned in 1878 after a man drowned, and 18 landowners signed a notice forbidding the game to take place on their property.
Still, the sport survived and even prospered, and when the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, tossed out the ball (called "turning up") at the opening ceremony in 1928, the event officially earned the designation Royal Shrovetide Football. Prince Charles was enlisted as royal turn-up for this year's Ash Wednesday game but begged off to attend the funeral of his aunt Princess Margaret.
In the hours before this year's Shrove Tuesday match, shopkeepers boarded their windows in fearful anticipation of the mayhem about to erupt. Just after noon some 400 locals gathered at the Green Man for the traditional pregame meal of tomato soup, roast beef and boiled potatoes. They sang the Shrovetide Song, the chorus of which goes:
It's a good old game,
By 2 p.m. the diners had reassembled at a nearby parking lot, where the turn-upper, local dignitary Simon Plumbly, stood on a plinth and lobbed the ball above the heads of a mass of waiting players, their voices joined in a primal roar. A knot of the 50 bravest swallowed up the ball, while another 200 pushed and pulled on the fringes. From then on, the brightly colored ball was rarely seen, lost beneath the flailing-limbed carnage of the heaving hug. You could follow the ball's progress by watching the steam rise off players in the middle of the scrum.