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SHROVETIDE FOOTBALL – DERBYSHIRE

Football, rugby, Aussie Rules, and American Football all trace their roots to a wild and dangerous style of game that was once played in villages and towns the length and breadth of the British Isles. The game has survived in its ancient form in the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, where th e competitive instinct that is responsible for the global appeal of ball sports can be seen at its most naked. Royal Ashbourne Shrovetide Football, played between teams of several thousand, on a pitch three miles long, divided by a river, whose boundaries include both town and countryside, is restrained by few of the regulations that characterise its modern offspring. Whilst murder, manslaughter, and transporting the football by vehicle are strictly forbidden, the teams are otherwise free to use whatever strategy they think best to wrestle the ball towards their opponent's goal. In addition to being short on rules, Royal Ashbourne Shrovetide Football lacks the strict boundaries between spectator and participant that limit the contemporary game. Members of either sex are free to join a match at will, and to retire from competition at any time.

The festival takes place amidst beautiful rural scenery, and derives additional charm from its unpredictability. It lasts for two days, during which at least two games will be played. For much of each game the football itself is obscured beneath a seething mass of players, known as the Hug, which proceeds very slowly along narrow streets, through people's flower gardens, over field and stream, trampling flat whatever it crosses and steaming all the while. Royal Ashbourne Shrovetide Football is an unruly kind of dance, an exuberant celebration of the joys of competing with thousands of similar minded people, that further allows its participants to turn a familiar landscape into a wonderland. For the duration of the festival the centre of a respectable county town, usually a place of labour and commerce, becomes the stage for a series of violent struggles, and civic order makes way for festive chaos. The resulting spectacle has been described as resembling a “cross between Rugby, Football, and a civil war.”