Great British traditions: the Atherstone ball game

The 817th Atherstone ball game was held last Shrove Tuesday. That’s Pancake Day, or the day before Lent starts. If you need more information on the significance of the date, your friendly local Jewish atheist is here to provide it, so do ask. The game runs for two hours and the winner is the person holding the ball when it ends.

Most of the sources I’ve checked agree that there’s only one rule, but they disagree about what it is. One says the only rule is that there are no rules, then it says the only rule is that the ball can’t be taken out of town. Which violates my sense of what no rules means, but hey, I’m a foreigner here, so what do I know? Maybe no is one of those words our two countries use differently.

And not to quibble or anything, but if the only rule is that there are no rules except for the one about not taking the ball out of town, isn’t that two rules? Rule 1. there are no rules. Rule 2. don’t take the ball out of town. Does that mean we use only differently as well?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses. It's spring. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses. It’s spring. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Another source says the only rule is that the players aren’t allowed to kill each other. That does seem sensible, but I suspect it’s not organic to the game and that the police are just being spoilsports. The town council backs my first source—the one that says the only rule is that the ball can’t be taken out of town—which supports my theory.

Yet another source, having repeated that there are no rules, says that the ball’s decorated with ribbons that can be exchanged for money by the people who snatch them. Sounds like a rule to me, folks, but maybe I have an expansive idea of what rule means. It also says the ball can be deflated or hidden after 4:30. (The game ends at 5). That also sounds like a rule. And it sounds like a hard trick to pull off. Getting the ball far enough away from the crowd so you can do anything other than fight for your life? Not likely.

The town prepares for the game by boarding up the shop windows and diverting traffic. I’d recommend locking up the guns and knives myself, but again, I’m a foreigner, and an American at that. You’d want to keep that in mind if you consider my advice seriously.

This is not a game for small people. In any number of the pictures I’ve seen, at least one person, and it’s never anybody my size, has somehow landed on top of the crowd and someone else is looking panicked, is on the ground, or is grabbing someone else, either to keep from getting trampled or to pull them down so they can be trampled. Or all of the above. And in one an elderly person is standing serenely in the middle of all this as if he (or possibly she–it’s a small photo and I’m not 600% sure) were alone on the cliffs and looking out to sea, while the man beside him or her is having his head shoved and his hat knocked off.

You gotta love this country.

I could give you a dozen links, but let’s limit it to one, a clip from BBC Midlands.

“Isn’t it a bit dangerous?” the BBC interviewer asks I have no idea who.

“Not really,” I have no idea who answers and goes on to back that up with a couple of totally irrelevant statements. So, right, not dangerous at all, but I won’t be taking my short, not-young self into the middle of the melee next year, thanks.

If you have nothing better to do (and if you’ve read this far I’m going to have to assume that you don’t), you can find all the photos you want by googling Atherstone ball game, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Oh, hell, here, I’ll do it for you.

45 thoughts on “Great British traditions: the Atherstone ball game

  1. They have to have their fun once a year. I suspect anything much else happens in Atherstone the rest of the year. In my memory, besides its ancient ball game, Atherstone is famous for a) being a settlement on an old Roman road (Watling Street, now the A5), b) being the one-time headquarters of the Lloyds Pharmacy chain (not the bank) – that’s about it really. Exciting eh?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. To me, this is absolutely hysterical. The English are more civilized, certainly, or at least, the group in the first video is. Americans would probably take weaponry or wear swat team gear or somethin. But then, maybe not, because does one actually win anything besides the ball? As the newscaster said, it does look “a tad violent.” Anyway, great post.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Okay, I checked out the pictures, and now I just need to say: I cannot think of anything I would want to do _less_ than play in the Atherstone ball game. NOT ONE DAMN THING.

    Volunteer for unanesthetized root canal surgery? Take a mud bath but using cow patties instead of mud? Eat an entire car? Live out the rest of my days on Boaty McBoatface, touring the Arctic? I’ll take any one of those over this rule-less freeforall ball game thing-y.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This fun post reminds me that Jackie still quotes my late brother Chris’s explanation of the game of rugby – ‘you have to cross the opponents’ line with the ball but you must only pass it backwards, that’s it’

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I don’t think you mentioned it, but I’m assuming that in the tradition of events which, chronologically probably came after this (like Mardi Gras) that alcohol is either involved or permitted. It looks like a fun event to watch from afar. Thanks for another entertaining view of the mother land.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I used to live near a football stadium and that’s kinda how the streets sometimes looked after a match, but obviously in the famous Atherstone ball game that I’d not heard of til now, they have turned the whole aftergame into a … what? Sport?

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Today is Workers’ Day here – not in the UK? and reading this post is a great way to start a lazy laid-back day, seeing how some people have a completely different view of how to enjoy their leisure time! Your discussion about rules is a delight: murky rules sound more like a Machiavellian way of finding reasons not to follow any – we should know here in Italy :) The photos are hair-raising, I prefer your primroses, relevant or not.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. The only thing that could make this funnier is if they all played naked. Which is not that far-fetched because, according to Wikipedia, Atherton was in the holding of Lady Godiva. But that would be adding a rule. Perhaps it could be clothing-optional?

    Liked by 1 person

    • They may well have done that once. Didn’t the ancient British warriors paint themselves blue and fight naked? Or did I make that up. Probably not relevant, since that would’ve been long before the Angles and Saxons invaded, and Atherton, as a friend commented recently, is a very Anglo-Saxon place name. Never mind–it’s interesting all the same.)

      But even clothing optional is a rule of sorts. We just can’t get away from them.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m a New England Patriots fan so I know a thing or two about deflated balls!! ;-)
    The primroses are lovely btw. I agree with regarding the no rules/rules thing…there seem to be rules! Those images are frightening, I can see why someone would want to participate…I mean who wouldn’t want to win that ball and be able to decorate it!! It would make a lovely centerpiece.
    Another fun read by you…thanks!! :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. So, so far, it seems like no less than five rules for the no rules game. And since you’re technically a foreigner, there’s probably a few more that you just weren’t told about yet. I think next time I go visit, I’ll sit this game out. ;)

    Liked by 1 person

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