Locals in towns across England have been battening down the hatches once more for a series of traditional Shrove Tuesday ‘medieval football’ games that see competitors scuffle for possession – with violent consequences.
The Atherstone Ball Game has been played since 1199 and remains a top fixture in the town’s events calendar despite developing a reputation for violence.
It sees residents toss the oversized ball – which is made specially each year for the event – around and attempt to retain possession across two agonising hours.
Infamously, the game itself has very few rules, allowing competitors to engage in just about any behaviour in order to keep hold of the giant sphere for themselves – short of killing one another or taking the ball out of town.
The ball itself is 27 inches in diameter, and is filled with water to give it weight – sitting at around 4lbs on the scales when full.
Comedian Josh Pugh – who grew up in Atherstone – prepares to throw the ball into the waiting street below for play to commence across two very exhausting hours
The game starts with sweets being thrown out to children onto the streets – before spilling across town
Play begins in the Atherstone Ball Game in Warwickshire – as marshalls in yellow high visibility jackets look on
The huge ball measures 27inches in diameter and weighs 4lb when filled with water – making it tricky to hold onto
Locals in Atherstone are boarding up windows ahead of the start of the Atherstone Ball Game, now in its 824th year
The game sees violent scuffles break out over possession of an oversized ball weighing 4lbs – and preparations are made beforehand to protect the streets
This year’s ball has been made specially, as it is every year – and signed by locals before being filled with water until it weighs 4lbs
The game was expected to begin at 3pm and runs until 5pm tonight. Locals have already been pictured boarding up windows on Long Street, where the game is played, in anticipation of the full-scale brawls that are to come.
Warwickshire Police, however, have warned locals that the fun and games are not an excuse for violence – after previous years saw competitors knock lumps out of one another while trying to get the ball.
An X, formerly Twitter account affiliated with the force said: ‘(Warwickshire Police) will be making use of CCTV and drone footage to keep an eye on proceedings.
‘Any incidents of criminal violence will be investigated, and the perpetrators dealt with accordingly.’
Last year, locals told MailOnline they believed competitors were getting drunk and high on cocaine beforehand to numb their ability to feel pain.
One said in 2023: ‘You see them all at 2 o’clock before it starts and their jaws are swinging this way and that. A lot of them are off their heads on cocaine and you can see it in their reactions to pain.’
Last year’s bust up saw something that few were betting on – players piled up outside the entrance to a bookmakers, raining punches on one another and tearing at each other’s clothes in an attempt to keep hold of the ball.
Rather than being ostracised, the most virile competitors are celebrated and hailed as local celebrities – even as some competitors come away with black eyes and swollen lips.
One local said last year: ‘People love it. The men go mad. The shirts all get ripped off. It is great for us ladies to see some nice fit lads.’
And in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, the annual Royal Shrovetide football game is well underway – in similarly over-the-top and spectacular style.
There, too, shops have been boarded up to protect their glass frontages – with Ashbourne’s local Boots pharmacy even installing a chipboard door.
Others erected wooden planks across their windows and doorways to keep players at bay.
The game is played Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday every year across two eight-hour periods.
And to top it off, the goals are three miles apart, at either end of the town – with players’ teams decided by which side of the Henmore Brook, a stream that runs through the town, they were born on.
They are then named the Up’ards and the Down’ards depending on whether they were born on the northern or the southern side of the stream.
Much like the Atherstone game, the ball is specially made, and weighs around 4lbs, filled with cork to help it float should it fall into the river.
Play gets underway in the Royal Shrovetide Football Match in Ashbourne – the tradition dating back centuries in an annual display of crosstown friendly rivalry
Players fight for possession of the ball during the Royal Shrovetide Football Match after the ball ends up in the Henmore Brook that inspired the game’s origins
In Ashbourne, Derbyshire, the local Boots pharmacy has put up a full-length chipboard door ahead of the annual football game
Other shops in Ashbourne have boarded up their windows and doorways in anticipation of virile competition between players
Pubs, estate agents, cafes, shops – nothing is safe from the threat of the highly competitive game spilling over into damage and violence
A local cafe in Ashbourne attaches wooden planks to its windows in order to ward off players
Play gets underway in the 2024 Royal Shrovetide Football Match in Ashbourne – with a ball decorated with a crown
Players from north and south of the Henmore Brook clash during the Royal Shrovetide Football Match
Key amongst its participants is the ‘turner up’ – a respected local chosen to start play by throwing the ball into the air. Among past turners-up is King Charles III.
And while there are few rules, play remains out of churchyards, cemeteries and places of worship; murder, understandably, is also forbidden.
More recently, a ban was introduced on motorised vehicles to stop savvier players from running off with the ball in their cars.
Meanwhile, Alnwick in Northumberland also is engaging in its traditional football match, also known as Scoring the Hales.
Once played in the streets of the Northern village, it is now battled out on the pastures in front of Alnwick Castle, and kicked off at around 2.15pm.
Cash prizes are available for those scoring ‘hales’, or goals, with £15 for the first and second goals and £30 for the scorer of the third, winning, haile.