There could only be one winner.
Before I came to Ashbourne I thought Shrovetide was a quaint village ceremony. Once you come to Ashbourne you realise very quickly that it is more than that… it is part of the DNA of the Town that defines it and makes it special.
I’ve never participated in the Game itself but everyone in Ashbourne participates in the showpiece whether they like it or not. For weeks before there are the telltale signs. There’s an odd article in the Ashbourne News Telegraph. The new hoodies and t-shirts start appearing before Christmas. There’s a debate about who will be turning up the ball each year and then the announcement is made. There are sneak previews of the balls being painted in honour of each lucky candidate. As we get nearer gym attendance steps up and groups jog through the darkened streets getting fit for the event. Details of the luncheon are announced. The balls go on display and for the last couple of years the scorer’s watches are previewed.
In the week itself there is evidence of the shops being boarded up and then on the day itself the whole town is devoted to the game with a huge influx of visitors. There are returning players who live far afield coming back to play and tourists to see the spectacle. The game itself is clearly a sport with tactics from years ago mixed with the odd bit of innovation and controversy. The Henmore regularly sorts out the regulars from the occasional player and all day long the ball makes slow progress in one direction or the other. In the evening I’ve regularly come across the celebratory return home from one goal or the other.
And afterwards there are the war stories, spectacular photographs, scores settled and occasional controversy about tactics, timekeeping or rules. Year round there are past Shrovetide balls to be viewed in pubs and houses around the town.
There really was only one winner for the number one of things I like about Ashbourne.