“Are you an Up’Ard or a Down’Ard?”
That is question which bounces through the tranquil Derbyshire town of Ashbourne, as the build up their big ball game day gets underway from early February.
Friends, families, colleagues and acquaintances split themselves up between the town’s two teams, depending on which side they were born on the town’s Henmore Brook, as each side dons their boots and their pride, ready to take on their home rivals.
Ashbourne’s former Mayor councillor Caroline Cooper spoke to the Herald about their game, its importance and how it shapes up to our match, which is entering its 819th year.
“Of course I am biased and I am going to say that our ball game is better, but both have their own charm and passion”, said Caroline.
“The ball game is one of the biggest and most exciting events in the Ashbourne calendar and I am sure it is the same in Atherstone, everybody looks forward to it, there is a buzz around the town and the teams will have been training for months before the big day.
“I have always been a fan of the Ashbourne Ball Game, many of my family members have been involved over the years and I have been in charge of making sure their kits are ready for the event. It is a wonderful, crazy thing to watch.”
On Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday the gigantic football match will sweep across the Derbyshire town as the two teams lock horns for the next page of the event’s illustrious history.
The object is to bang the custom-made ball on one of the two goal plinths set out three miles apart on opposite ends of the town.
Never a high-scoring match, both teams use their brute force, cunning, speed and, without forgetting their football skill, to get the ball from the centre of the town to the opposition goal, deep within the Derbyshire countryside.
Starting at 2pm on Shrove Tuesday, the game can carry on right up until 10pm, before it starts all over again on Ash Wednesday.
The ball is moved around the town in a series of rugby-like scrums known as “hugs”, but it is far from the soothing, comforting feeling normally associated with cuddles.
Like Atherstone, the only rule is that you are not allowed to kill anyone and unnecessary violence is “frowned upon.”
If a goal is scored before 5.30pm a second ball is thrown into the melee in a bid to keep the action flowing, otherwise play would end for that day.
The match would then resume at the same time on Ash Wednesday and would last for hours.
Anyone who scores a goal gets to keep the ball and if no goals are scored, the ball is presented to the celebrity or renowned local person who started the match.
Many of the match balls, which are specially decorated each year for the occasion, take pride of place in pubs across the town.
“In the past, people would use the game to settle old scores and get the odd kick or a punch in there, due to the rough nature of the match.
“It is still rough now, there are lots of big men who take part in it, but everybody loves the ball game, it includes everyone.
“Schoolchildren finish early, shopkeepers board up their shops, there is a real excitement to the air, we have even had Royal approval as Prince Charles has even come to Ashbourne to watch and praise the match.”
So how do you know which team you belong to?
Well, Up’Ards are people born North of the Henmore Brook, which runs through the town.
The Down'Ards are those born south of the river.
Caroline said: “If you knew someone who was an Up’Ard or a Down’Ard you would not speak to them in the lead up to ball game day!
“For the rest of the year, the town is normal, but for those days in February, the rivalry is fierce.
“Being the Mayor last year, I could not possibly tell you that I am a Down’Ard or that I will be secretly wanting them to win on the day!
“What makes our game special is that it is so traditional, it part of Ashbourne and the town just wouldn’t be the same without it.”
Like Atherstone, the game dates back to the middle ages and has been played throughout the First and Second World Wars.
The only thing that has stopped the game over the years is foot and mouth disease in the 1960s and in 2001.
Despite concentrating on their own game, people in Ashbourne are aware of the Atherstone Ball Game and believe they are both intrinsic to British life.
Caroline said: “We all know that there is a game similar to ours in Atherstone and although I have never been to see it myself, I am sure the people of the town are as passionate as we are.
“There are only two left in the whole country and they need to be protected for the future.
“If they disappear there will be nothing to show future generations what life was like in the past and there will be no traditions.
“People will not know the importance of the games or feel the atmosphere they create, so they must carry on.
“I am really looking forward to our event and to be Mayor makes it extra special.”
We may not have Up’ards, we may not have Down’Ards, but as ours dates back to ‘Bad’ King John’s Match of Gold and has been played every single year ever since, it is clear that the Atherstone Ball Game wins everytime!