From an unsolicited email I found in my inbox... very Tom-Brown's-School-Days or something:
Ever thought of soccer as an extreme sport? If not, you've never heard of Royal Ashbourne Shrovetide Football (or simply "Shrovetide").
I was introduced to Shrovetide when first I met my husband, a determined Shrovetider, and asked him how he'd broken his nose. [editor's note: no, his name is not Sol Campbell]
Shrovetide is played in the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, England, on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday. It's been played every year since at least the 12th century (not even the world wars stopped play).
The pitch is the town, including surrounding fields and the Henmore River. The goal posts are three miles apart, at the sites of two medieval mill wheels, one upstream, and the other, downstream. There is no limit to the number of players on each side, and few rules, so the game is rough and tumble. It is all played in good humor, so deaths are unlikely, but it is a great spectacle to watch.
The ball (brightly painted leather, about the size of a medicine ball) is ritually thrown to the mob (known as "The Hug") at 2 p.m. each day, and is then fought over by two teams: The Uppards, who try to score it at the upstream goal; and the Downards, who try to score it at the downstream goal. Play continues until 10 p.m. Loyalties are decided by birth--if you're born upstream, or from an upstream family, then you're an Uppard; everyone else is a Downard.
As the field of play is the whole town, spectators can get caught up in the play, but it's quite safe--you'll find refuges in enclosed areas. However, be prepared to see 500 men in rags and hobnail boots rampaging toward you.
It can be cold, but luckily Ashbourne has many historic pubs, cafés, and restaurants to keep you warm. Dinner for two--with wine--costs around $70, but you can find good fish and chips for two for about $12.
The riverbanks form the best viewing platform for watching river play, and cheers go up from the crowd whenever the ball is seen. Expect a warm welcome form the locals, and someone in the crowd will always explain the finer points of play, as they're intensely proud of their unique heritage.
- Kathryn Burton
For International Living