Anarchy in the UK – the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football

November 1976 saw the Sex Pistols – the dark princes of English punk rock – release their debut single, Anarchy in the UK. The Pistols were wild and wayward, and maybe just a little bit bonkers, but even in their maddest dreams they cannot possibly have imagined the crazy world of Ashbourne Shrovetide football. Like the Pistols themselves, Shrovetide football isn’t for the faint-hearted. Anarchy rules, OK.

Unless you’re English you’ve probably never heard of Ashbourne. To be fair, even if you are, the chances are that this quaint little market town of around 8,000 souls nestling in the Derbyshire Peak District has passed you by. It oozes bucolic charm, and is therefore memorably forgettable.

A few years ago a former Ashbourne resident, writing on the student website The Tab, described it as “the most backwards town in the country“. Seems a bit harsh to me, but it has to be said that unless you’re very easily excited, the place won’t set your pulse racing. Except, that is, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, when football comes to town.

10-P2183459

PHOTO CREDIT: “10-P2183459” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Shrovetide football bears scant resemblance to any other form of football. The Ashbourne game comprises two teams – the Up’Ards, born north of the local River Henmore, and the Down’Ards, born to its south. The number of players is unlimited, and can exceed a thousand on each side. The goals, where the ball must be touched down to register a score, are three miles (five kilometres) apart.

The game begins in the Shawcroft car park in the centre of Ashbourne, where an eager crowd of thousands gathers. They belt out the national anthem as if their lives depend on it. Then silence falls and the excitement builds, everyone waiting impatiently for the fun to begin.

At last, with the tension close to unbearable, an invited dignitary or celebrity standing on a brick-built podium “turns up” the ball – lavishly painted, filled with cork for added buoyancy and about the size of a Halloween pumpkin – into the expectant horde of pumped-up masculinity. Testosterone hangs heavy in the air, so thick you could butter toast with it. No rules prevent women from participating, but good sense persuades most to take a back-seat and let their menfolk do the hard graft and risk the consequences.

05-P2183439

PHOTO CREDIT: “05-P2183439” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The objective of the game is straightforward. The Up’Ards must carry the ball to Sturston Mill, south of Ashbourne, and “goal” by tapping it three times against a millstone. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? The only problem they face is the thousand or so Down’Ards who are blocking the way and baying for blood.

Meanwhile, the aim of the Down’Ards is to carry the ball to Clifton Mill, north of the town, where they also must “goal it”. Inevitably, they find their passage blocked by at least a thousand incensed Up’Ards, whose ambition is to prevent this happening by means both cunning and brutal.

As you will have worked out by now, Shrovetide football has no designated pitch or playing field. The game is played through the streets of the town, and the sprawling farmland beyond, occasionally spilling into the freezing river. It is the original “game without borders.”

Proceedings are boisterous, chaotic and occasionally violent. Shopkeepers close their businesses and protect their premises with wooden boards and shutters, car owners move their vehicles out of harm’s way and paramedics are on standby. Schools close for the day, lest students get caught up in the mayhem. Injuries are common, although fatalities are mercifully very rare.

21-P2183512

PHOTO CREDIT: “21-P2183512” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Play begins at 2pm on Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) and finishes eight hours later. Battered, bruised and bloodied, the players limp off home to lick their wounds, only to assemble the following day at 2pm to do it all again. Despite 16 hours of play, it is rare for more than two goals to be scored in any year. Sometimes, the result is a nil-nil draw, and every year the broken limbs, bruises, sprains and strains outnumber the goals scored.

You can count the rules on the fingers of one hand. Players must not enter churchyards or cemeteries, and must refrain from hiding the ball or attempting to carry it on a motor vehicle. In addition, murder is frowned upon. But with these few exceptions, pretty much anything goes.

“Mob football”, as the Ashbourne game is classified, has a long history – dating back at least to the 13th century – and was once widespread in rural England. Inevitably the mayhem it caused was resented by the wealthier and more refined types, those who had the most to lose from mass outbreaks of anarchic behaviour.

02-P2183425

PHOTO CREDIT: “02-P2183425” by Jason Crellin is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Eventually these elite groups got their way, and mob football went into serious decline in the nineteenth century after the 1835 Highway Act banned the playing of football on public highways. But it clung on in Ashbourne, and a few other places including Workington and Sedgefield in northern England, and Kirkwall in the Orkney Islands of Scotland.

Shrovetide football remains a much-loved tradition amongst Ashbourne people, a demanding endurance test for all the participants, and also a rite of passage for lads wishing to follow in the hallowed footsteps of previous generations of men in their families. Many former residents return to the town every year to take part or watch from the side-lines, and tourists visit in droves to see what all the fuss is about. For two days every year, Shrovetide football ensures that Ashbourne has a national – and even international – profile.

And now to the question that’s been on your mind as you’ve read this post – has the Platypus Man ever played Shrovetide football? The answer is an emphatic ‘no,’ and although Ashbourne lies just a few miles from Platypus Towers I’ve never attended as a spectator either. Frankly, life’s too short and my body is way too fragile to risk the frenzy of the mob. Have a look at this short video, on the Guardian’s website, and you’ll understand everything!

Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted that this relic from our country’s medieval past hangs on in deepest, darkest Derbyshire. But I’m glad too that, thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can read about it and watch YouTube videos of the highlights in own home, secure in the knowledge that there are several miles and a very sturdy brick wall between me and the madness.

A little bit of Anarchy in the UK isn’t without its appeal, but only when viewed from a safe distance.

Chatsworth House at Christmas

It’s become the fashion in recent years for stately homes – whether in private hands or run by a charitable trust – to open their doors to the public in the run up to Christmas and show off their festive decorations. Some seem to regard it simply as another money-making ploy: just whack up a few trees and glittery baubles, scatter artificial snow liberally in the library, hang a sock or two from a suitable fireplace and watch the money roll in.

Chatsworth House, featuring the “Emperor Fountain”, August 2018

Others – like Chatsworth House in Derbyshire – take it far more seriously, and clearly invest heavily to develop an annual Christmas offer that will delight their visitors. They still watch the money roll in, of course – that’s the name of the game, after all – but at least the punters go away with a smile on their faces, and maybe a few goodies from the seasonally stocked gift shop.

In the magnificent Great Hall the national theme is Russia

Chatsworth House, built in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, is the ancestral home of the Dukes of Devonshire. In 1981 the house, many of its contents and 737 hectares (1,822 acres) of the surrounding landscape were leased to the Chatsworth House Trust, and the family now pays rent to the Trust for the apartment they occupy. The current (12th) Duke and Duchess work with the charity and others to welcome visitors to Chatsworth.

The Chatsworth House website explains the role of the Trust as follows;

Every penny of visitor admission goes directly to the Chatsworth House Trust, which is dedicated to the long-term preservation of Chatsworth House, the art collection, garden, woodlands and park for the long-term benefit of the public

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

Be in no doubt, Chatsworth House is a big business. According to its 2018 annual review, in 2017/18 the house and gardens welcomed a little over 600,000 visitors, generated income of almost £15m and employed 366 people, including 114 full-time posts. In this context the Christmas opening isn’t a deal-breaker, but every little helps, not least in building Chatsworth’s reputation and encouraging return visits in the main, summer season.

In the splendid chapel the national theme is Spain

And as we pull into the car park around ten days before Christmas, the place is buzzing. A host of eager attendants, resplendent in their dayglo yellow tabards, direct us to its further reaches where they can just squeeze us in.

National theme: Russia

The theme of this year’s decorations is ” a land far, far away.” Here’s what the website tells us to expect:

Discover lands afar at Chatsworth this Christmas, following in the footsteps of explorers Phileas Fogg and Amelia Earhart. Our guides will lead you on a festive adventure around the globe as you travel from a Nordic winter wonderland, through blossom trees in Japan, to a baroque Spanish church on the journey of a lifetime.

SOURCE: Chatsworth House website, retrieved 23 December 2019

National theme: Canada

It’s a clever choice, a chance to give each room or space a theme relating to a specific country, such as the arched branches of russet maple leaves in the Canadian room (actually, more of a corridor than a room, albeit the grandest corridor most of us will ever see.)

Visiting Chatsworth at Christmas is meant to be educational as well as enjoyable, so signposts in each room advise us of the capital of each nation featured, how far it is from Chatsworth, the average December temperature and how much snow falls there that month.

To give the exhibition a more human touch there are also panels bearing snippets of personal information. For example, the 9th Duke was Governor-General of Canada from 1916 to 1921. Not a lot of people know that.

National Theme: Japan

Generally speaking it’s highly creative and although some of the national themes work better than others, overall it’s very well done. There’s certainly no shortage of Christmas trees, no surprise really considering that there are whole plantations of the things on the Chatsworth estate. But I hate to think what Chatsworth’s electricity bill will be this month, lighting up so many trees across no fewer than 22 separate rooms.

Most of the punters seem content that their £25 entrance fee has been well spent, although a gentleman from the other side of the pond – Texan, judging by his drawl – is overheard complaining bitterly that the American room should have been bigger.

National theme: China

In the interests of transatlantic harmony, and mindful of the fact that we Brits need all the friends we can get these days, I refrain from pointing out that if a larger space really is necessary he could always offer to donate his mouth to the cause. But I keep quiet, and am momentarily dismayed by the sense of an opportunity for innocent merriment that is forever lost.

Meanwhile a couple of visitors have no time to worry about national pride. We watch a young lady – in her early 20s probably – move from room to room having her photo taken in front of every tree. Not once, not twice, but dozens of times in front of every bloody tree in Chatsworth House.

National theme: Switzerland

She poses and postures, pouts and preens, tossing her hair and placing a quizzical finger to her chin, but never looks directly at the guy with the camera. Does she think it makes her look more alluring, more seductive? If she does she’s sadly mistaken, she just appears evasive.

And who is this guy anyway, what is he to the Queen of Preen? Boyfriend? Brother? Agent? Pimp? Who knows, but he’s clearly on a mission, clicking away like crazy on his Pentax. The pair of them are in a little world of their own, obsessed with the photoshoot, indifferent to the magic of Chatsworth House.

National theme: Morocco

But the Queen of Preen and Pentax Man are in the minority: most visitors have simply come here for an hour or two of harmless fun. The organisers have done an excellent job in managing the hordes, and there’s a surprising air of serenity.

Chatsworth at Christmas harks back to a gentler age, an age that is a world away from the madness that assails us in the shops and across the media at this time of year. OK, the vision of Christmas portrayed at Chatsworth is a chocolate box fantasy, a bit of feel-good escapist nonsense. But it’s good to escape sometimes.

And god knows, there’s loads of stuff in December 2019, in the UK, that I want to escape from.

Birdfair: the curse of Glastonbury

My last post was an account our August trip to the Birdfair, an annual three-day celebration of the natural world held on the shores of Rutland Water.  It’s a huge affair, a joyous jamboree with at least a dozen massive marquees and thousands of visitors who park up in the surrounding fields and pastureland before making their way to the site.  At Birdfair a carnival atmosphere reigns … unless, that is, it rains.

Although the rain had stopped, by Saturday morning the ground was saturated and was soon churned to mud

This year we’d noticed for the first time that Birdfair is being styled as the “birders’ Glastonbury.”  Now you can call me an old worry-guts, but I was inclined to think that this is tempting fate given Glastonbury music festival’s uneasy relationship with the rain gods.  And so it proved to be: in the making of this reckless comparison the curse of Glastonbury was duly invoked.

Quagmires soon developed where footfall was greatest

We’ve been to more than 20 Birdfairs, and on the whole have been blessed with good weather.  But all good things come to an end, so it came as no surprise that the forecast for Friday afternoon and evening was dire. 

In these circumstances you hope the weathermen have got it wrong – no surprises to be had there, of course – but this time, regrettably, they were spot on.  The rain set in shortly after midday and got steadily heavier. Soon we were enduring a downpour of biblical proportions. 

When the mud dried on our shoes it turned as hard as concrete

We made a run for it at about 4pm on Friday, back to the comfort of our hotel where, it transpired, television reception was non-existent due to the intensity of the storm. 

I was pleased to get out of the field in which we’d parked without much trouble, but we learned later that folk leaving after us were less fortunate. Many of them had to be pulled out by a tractor, until the tractor got stuck and had to be rescued by another, stronger tractor.  You couldn’t make it up.

The bog-lands of Birdfair

The next day the site was in a wretched state.  Despite the organisers’ best efforts the main pathways were rivers of disgusting mud and slime, interrupted by occasional pools of standing water.  Visitors slipped, slid and paddled between marquees, and the stall selling wellington boots did record business.

Mud, mud, glorious mud

Older visitors could be heard belting out the Flanders and Swann classic ‘Mud, mud, glorious mud,’ while one of the less ancient birders treated us to a rendition of Paul Simon’s ‘Slip sliding away.’

Birdfair 2019: a picture paints a thousand words

By Sunday afternoon the mud was turning more glutinous than liquid, and a degree of normality had returned to proceedings.  The foul conditions underfoot didn’t spoil the Birdfair – we Brits are made of sterner stuff – but I fear for next year’s event, lest we once again fall foul of the curse of Glastonbury.

Birdfair: hanging out with friends I’ve never met

Like most couples, I suppose, Mrs P and I have a few anchor dates in our diaries, days of fun, feasts and finery that are also milestones marking the passing of the year.  Chief amongst them are Christmas, our birthdays – both in March, just a couple of days apart – and of course our wedding anniversary in May. But no less important than any of these is the annual British Birdwatching Fair – or Birdfair as it’s known to its thousands of admirers – held every August on the shores of Rutland Water, by surface area the largest reservoir in England.

Offers abound in one of the Birdfair marquees

Birdfair began in 1989, and Mrs P and I have missed only one since we first decided to give it a try in the mid-1990s.  At first, we just went along on a Saturday to see what all the fuss was about. We were so captivated that pretty soon we were making a weekend of it, but eventually we realised even that wasn’t enough.  For about the last 15 years we’ve stayed at local hotels and been on site for all three days of Birdfair.

Specialist travel companies and interest groups are thick on the ground

So, just what is Birdfair?  In short, it’s a three-day celebration of the natural world, not just birds but wildlife and conservation as a whole, in the UK and beyond.  It was the first-ever event of its kind anywhere, and has been the inspiration for countless similar festivals across the world.

At Birdfair you can go to fascinating talks on conservation issues, hear about wildlife travel destinations and maybe buy the holiday of a lifetime.  You can browse stalls selling a staggering variety of high-quality wildlife art and top-end optical equipment, and watch a range of media personalities and birding experts making complete fools of themselves in spoofs of TV quizzes.

You can even pop along to the British Trust for Ornithology stand to watch a bird-ringing demonstration, or walk out to the Rutland Water nature reserve for a spot of birdwatching. Finally, you can go home feeling good about yourself, as the money raised from entry tickets goes towards vital conservation projects around the world.

TV personality Mike Dilger hosts a birding quiz

This year’s Birdfair was as good as ever.  We were inspired by Isabella Tree’s talk about a farm rewilding project in West Sussex, and excited by Mark Elliott’s account of bringing beavers back to Devon. 

We were given food for thought by Ian Carter’s talk on the red kite’s recovery in the UK, and got wildlife photography tips from the master himself, David Tipling.

A chance for some last minute research before our autumn trip to New Zealand

Mark Warren’s presentation on birding breaks in Scotland gave us a chance to reminisce, while Ruary Mackenzie Dodds’ talk on a bizarre New Zealand dragonfly suggested something else we should look out for during our trip Down Under.

Iolo Williams, possibly the funniest wildlife raconteur I’ve ever heard, made us laugh until we cried, and Simon King tried hard to convince us that Shetland has more to offer than rain.

Conservationist and TV presenter Simon King tries to convince us it doesn’t always rain in Shetland

We even found time to buy a new camera, and at a 26% discount on the price I was quoted a few days earlier in our local store.  Result!

During the Birdfair we were able to catch up with some friends and family who’d also made the trip.  And, just as important, we could spend three days in the company of people who share our interests and values, briefly hanging out with friends we’ve never met.  It may sound trite, but Birdfair feels like a family, everyone connected by the shared DNA of a passion for the natural world. 

Queueing for a talk on rewilding … with 100s of friends I’ve never met

In an article in the Birdfair programme Lucy McRobert and Rob Lambert touched on this theme when they wrote: “This is the natural history clan coming together, the British wildlife constituency gathering in thousands on the shores of an inland sea.”

Exactly!  Long may it continue.

Invitation to a wedding

Sadly, I’ve reached the time of life when I get to go to many more funerals than weddings.  Until the invitation to Mark and Kate’s nuptials arrived it had been nearly two years since I’d last witnessed a couple tying the matrimonial knot, so I was delighted to be asked.  And as an added bonus, their wedding was to take place at one of the colleges of Cambridge University, so picturesque surroundings, excellent food and plenty of fine wine were all pretty much guaranteed.

A Cambridge college makes a pictureseque wedding venue

Mark is my godson.  Also, he and his mum are pretty much the only blood relatives I have left, or at least the only ones I’m aware of.  However, I’m sad to say that I hardly know him. 

Mark lives in London, while Mrs P and I are holed up in the north Midlands.  Our paths have crossed only rarely over the years, and although he once stayed with us for a couple of days and his mum updates us from time to time on his exploits, he’s something of a mystery.

The invitation to Mark’s wedding was therefore a pleasant surprise, though not one I probably deserved given my inept performance as a godfather.  Even better, it quickly became apparent that Mark is a lovely, caring man. 

The college chapel was an intimate setting for the ceremony

Although this was his – and Kate’s – big day, Mark went out of his way to greet and make welcome all the guests, to spend loads of time chatting with them, and to find ways of ensuring those guests got to know one another.  And he also found plenty of time to be attentive to his 99 years-old wheelchair-bound maternal grandad, whom he clearly adores.

One of Mark’s cunning plans to bring the wedding guests closer together was to lay on an evening barn dance.  Such were his powers of gentle persuasion that even I took to the dance floor, for the first time in a couple of decades.  Mrs P likes barn dancing, so thanks to my godson I won myself a rare brownie point. Yes, result!

Moreover, I’m proud to report that I held my own in the Gay Gordons, before plumbing hitherto unimagined depths of incompetence while Stripping the Willow. 

Mrs P says the latter failure was down to her, but I think she’s just being nice: I really should learn the difference between left and right. But, despite the exhaustion and the humiliation I will confess I thoroughly enjoyed myself, though I don’t imagine I’ll be putting on a repeat performance any time soon.

Cake, cake, glorious cake!

All too soon the evening was over.  Mark and Kate left to begin their new life together.  I left, supported by my long-suffering missus, for a quiet lie down in a darkened room.  Too much wine and barn dancing can do that to a man.

I’m really pleased we made the trip to Cambridge for Mark’s big day.  Partly because families – particularly tiny ones like mine – should stick together, but mainly because he’s a thoroughly decent human being and it was good to spend a few hours in his company. 

With luck we’ll meet up with him and Kate again before too long … though probably not on the dance floor!