Atherstone Ball Game
The Atherstone Ball Game is a "Medieval football" game played annually on Shrove Tuesday in the English town of Atherstone, Warwickshire. The game honours a match played between Leicestershire and Warwickshire in 1199, when teams used a bag of gold as a ball, and which was won by Warwickshire. At one time similar events were held in many towns throughout England, but Atherstone's is now one of only two such games that are played each year at Shrovetide, the other being the Royal Shrovetide Football match held in Ashbourne, Derbyshire.
The two-hour game is played in the town's main street, Long Street, and sees groups of players compete for possession of a giant ball that is specially made for the occasion. The match is usually started at 3.00pm on Shrove Tuesday by a celebrity guest, usually someone associated with the area, who is invited to throw the ball from an upstairs window of the Atherstone branch of Barclays Bank. The game itself has few rules, two being that play is restricted to Long Street and participants are not allowed to kill anyone. The winner is declared at 5.00pm, the title going to the person who has possession of the ball when the whistle sounds. Ahead of the game itself, sweets and pennies are thrown from Barclays Bank to local children. The ball is decorated with ribbons before the game, and prizes are also awarded to anyone who gets hold of one, as well as to the person who gets the golden penny, thrown into the crowd shortly before the game commences.
Medieval football matches were more common before the 20th century, but their violent nature led the government of the time to pass the Highways Act 1895 to prevent it being played in the streets, although games continued to take place in Atherstone. Before the 1970s the game was played throughout the town, but was restricted to Long Street because the ball frequently ended up in the Coventry Canal. In 1986, a public meeting was held to determine the game's future after that year's event got out of hand. The outcome of this meeting was the formation of a Ball Game committee, which now has responsibility for organising the event.
For several years the ball was made by the sportswear manufacturer Webb Ellis. Following the 2017 game Webb Ellis cancelled their contract to make the ball. As a consequence Atherstone upholsterer Pete Smith was commissioned to produce the ball for the 2018 game. This marked the first occasion the ball had been made in the town since 1982. Smith based his design on an original cardboard template made by local craftsman Brian Brown.
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