Readers lives - Shrovetide Glory

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William Bennett tells us why Ash Wednesday 1963 is a very special day for him

Played once a year by two teams with no limit on the number of players and the goals three miles apart, Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide football is unique in the sporting world!

Ashbourne resident William Bennett goaled the ball for the Up’ards in 1963.  Back in March this year he spoke to Derwent Life about his moment of glory.

“Mine was the only ball that was scored that year, the Tuesday one wasn’t scored.”

Trains were still running through Ashbourne in 1963 and on Ash Wednesday, with an evening train due, the Shrovetide Hug, and the crowd of onlookers were in the tunnel on Mappleton Road.

“So the police made them stop the game and they carried the ball up onto Station Street, near the old police station and they threw the ball up again. It went along Station Street down Compton, up the path onto the Shaw Croft and I was thrown the ball.

On thin ice

“I ran across the old Park Road, through the fence, across the fishpond field and the fishpond was frozen. So I ran across the fishpond and the ice was cracking as I ran! Nobody followed me and it gave me a chance to go across the field drop into the river.

“I stuffed the ball into a bush and I carried on up the river a bit and then I got out and all the crowd gather round. Someone shouted “it’s gone up the Recreation Ground” so everybody took off.

“There were four of us left by the river, one chap I was in the local fire service with, Mick, and I says to him “I’ve got the ball Mick”, and he says “you haven’t”, and I says “yeah I have!”.

“So all of a sudden everybody had gone and I went and got the ball out and we started making our way up to Sterston, no way thinking that I’d ever be scoring it.”

Out on a limb

Today the goals are purpose-built plinths on the banks of Henmore Brook near the former sites of Sturston and Clifton Mills. But in 1963 the Down’ards had to score at Clifton Mill and the Up’ards at Sturston Mill. Not an easy feat when you had to crawl across a beam 15ft in the air and tap the ball on the mill wheel!

Older players would stand looking out at each of the mills to watch for anyone coming with the ball so William and his friends had to avoid drawing attention to the ball in case the player raised the alarm.

“We put the ball to one side and went into the yard and I said to the player on watch, “I’m a stranger round here, could you tell me where they score the ball?” He says “yes you go down and swarm across the beam and you knock it three times on the wheel.”

“I was so concerned about having it taken off us that I told one of the chaps with me to go and fetch the old farmer out and he said “I’ve lived here all my life and it’s the first time ever anyone has asked me to come out and witness the ball being scored”. We started on our way back and met a couple in a car and she said to me “have you scored the ball?” and I says “yes” and she swore at me! She was a down’ard!”

On the way back to town William called into his house to show the ball to his dad. William said “He was watching the telly and I chucked it in his lap and I said “here you are!” and he says “get that out of the house I’ve had half Ashbourne round my garden looking for that!”

Dried out and repainted

Handmade from leather and filled with corkdust so it will float if thrown in the river, the ball is handpainted before the game. Today the design represents the person throwing it up but in 1963 it was a standard design each year. William continued “I got Mr Roberts who painted it in the first place and he let it dry out and painted it again. It cost me £1.50… it’s £100 or more now. But £1.50 was a lot then.”

Shrovetide football remains important in the Bennett family with William’s grandson continuing the tradition in 2020.

More on this story

You can watch Bill recount the story in his own words in the community section.