Forget pancakes, Lauren Maccabee photographs Ashbourne’s annual Shrovetide Football “free-for-all”

“There are two strict rules; one being that you cannot use motorised vehicles to carry the ball, and another being that murder and manslaughter are prohibited.”

13 February 2024

Every year on Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day, as you may better know it, the residents of Ashbourne come together for the annual Shrovetide Football game. Rather than getting their flour, eggs and milk together for some frying, the people of the small town divide the (many) players into two teams, before throwing a hand-painted ball into the air and seeing which side can manage to get it in the other’s goal – mile stones stationed three miles apart from one another. The whole town shuts off, schools and local businesses are closed and boarded up, and the event often bleeds into Ash Wednesday, by which point things begin to get a little hectic.

Last year, the photographer Lauren Maccabee travelled to Ashbourne to photograph the event. Lauren has something of an affinity for such unique rituals, which often have their roots in folklore and pagan practices, and she chose the event off of a long list of traditions she hopes to turn her camera to one day. In 2022 we covered her Garland Day series, a custom in the Peak District which sees a large flower garland carried through the Derbyshire village of Castleton on horseback.


Lauren Maccabee: Ashbourne Shrovetide (Copyright © Lauren Maccabee, 2024)

What draws Lauren to these events is how “brilliant and bizarre” they are, how “special” they are, and how they cause a great deal of excitement for the local community. When talking to a lot of the locals, she realised many people didn’t really know why the event – which goes back at least as far as 1667 – actually takes place, it’s simply a solidified part of their local culture. “The game is steeped in history, and you feel that whilst being there,” Lauren says. “There’s something otherworldly about these traditions and the way they feel removed from contemporary society.” But despite this historic element, the day itself had a modern feel to it; everyone was looking their best – girls with fresh blow drys, young boys were in their “freshest garms” – with popcorn, alcohol and burgers on offer.

Although the game is called a ‘football’ game, Lauren says it’s much more of a “free-for-all rugby match”. The teams are divided by location, those from the south of Henmore Brook are team Down’ard, and those from the north are team Up’ard, and there is no set pitch or number of players – usually resulting in a fair few bruised ribs and broken noses. “There are two strict rules,” says Lauren, “one being that you cannot use motorised vehicles to carry the ball, and another being that murder and manslaughter are prohibited.” While mainly “chaotic and fun”, at points it was also a bit terrifying. “At times the game was very intense – and I found myself having to rush with the tidal wave of people when suddenly the ball was thrown in the air and people went charging up the hill,” she adds.

GalleryLauren Maccabee: Ashbourne Shrovetide (Copyright © Lauren Maccabee, 2024)

Due to the hectic nature of the game, Lauren actually rarely saw the ball in play. But luckily, she was much more interested in photographing the bystanders, capturing a sense of the atmosphere and anticipation. During the match grinning (or slightly disgruntled) teenagers are shown with arrow face paint indicating their chosen team, older fans are seen leaning on their balconies taking advantage of their vantage point, and wider shots show a vast sea of heads, images you’d much rather expect from a festival headliner as opposed to a community sport. In one of Lauren’s favourite images, four young boys are immersed in the game; keen to get involved in the action, they’ve clambered up a tree, shouting passionately to their team about the whereabouts of the ball. She also managed to nestle her way into the pre-game ticketed lunch, where she spoke to locals, and got her only up-close look at the ball – “meticulously” hand-painted by locals – and heard the 1891 Shrovetide Anthem being sung.

For Lauren, it’s hard to put into words just how unifying the Shrovetide is, “it brings people together in a way which you can’t really fully understand unless you’ve been”, she says, with different generations mingling in a manner that’s rarely seen. On the one hand she encountered kids standing on walls making TikTok dances and shouting lyrics of the Shrovetide Anthem, and on the other there were “old timers” in their 80s and 90s reminiscing about the Shrovetide of their youth, all joined together by the eccentric event. So when you’re flipping your pancakes later tonight, take a moment to think about the sweaty players bustling a ball down the streets of a small northern town – carrying with them the rich and ancient history of Shrovetide Football.

GalleryLauren Maccabee: Ashbourne Shrovetide (Copyright © Lauren Maccabee, 2024)

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Lauren Maccabee: Ashbourne Shrovetide (Copyright © Lauren Maccabee, 2024)

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About the Author

Olivia Hingley

Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.

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