The Pain and Pride of Britain's Wildest Ballgame
Every Shrove Tuesday, the entire town of Ashbourne erupts in a brutal football match where almost anything goes and the rare glory of scoring a goal is savored for generations.
Photo by Joe Giddens/PA Images
“Long to reign over us, God save the Queen,” chants a choir of thousands on a patch of the English Midlands, their eyes fixated on a single podium. There’s a roar of applause, a wave of sound loud enough to ripple through the streets as cold breath hangs in the air. Then, silence, a fleeting moment that seems to last two lifetimes before a ball is thrown skyward and falls to grasping hands. The pagan game of Shrovetide has begun.
For 363 days of the year Ashbourne, Derbyshire, is just another town, a gatekeeper to the Peak District. It has a population slightly over 8,000 with a pub named after a duke or a dragon on near enough every corner, emblazoned with Union Jack flags. It’s a place where pensioners spend their golden years gazing through coffee shop windows at elaborately garnished cakes, buying Sunday roasts from butchers named Nigel’s or Mark’s — not the typical High Street chains. But for two days in late winter, locals take to the streets of Ashb…
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