Every Shrove Tuesday, for hundreds of years, residents of Sedgefield, County Durham, battle for possession of a small leather ball in what has become the town’s most surreal sporting tradition. Lizzie Anderson reports.
A visitor passing through Sedgefield today (Tuesday, February 12) could be forgiven for think a riot was taking place.
Hundreds of burly men were charging in every direction – across the village green, along the high street, through the church yard, in the pubs and through the beck.
However, on closer inspection, it becomes clear there is more to the chaos than meets the eye.
The group are chasing a leather ball and women, children and pensioners are also getting stuck in.
The annual Shrove Tuesday Ball Game is in full swing.
As is the tradition, the game was started at 1pm by a resident passing the ball through the bull ring on the village green three times.
This year, the honour went to Angela Bannister - a 71-year-old grandmother who has lived in Sedgefield all of her life.
Mrs Bannister said it was a proud moment, adding: “It was fantastic. I have been chasing the ball since I was a little girl and it is a great honour to start the game.
“It may look a bit rough but it’s not so scary when you are used to it.”
On the surface, the game is very much a free-for-all, with participants kicking and throwing the ball, tripping each other up and tackling other players to the ground.
However, it is governed by well–established conventions, which include a free drink for the first player to take the ball into any of the pubs, a battle for possession in the local beck and several breaks in play to allow the ball to be taken to pubs in nearby villages.
It can be brutal but the players tend to hang back when children and pensioners go to kick the ball.
Four-year-old Ethan Frampton, from Trimdon, could not stop smiling after he kicked the ball.
It was his first experience of the ball game and he described it as “really exciting.”
The tradition is thought to date back to the 13th century when the stonemason who completed St Edmund's Church challenged the countrymen to a celebratory game of football.
Nowadays, it is organised by a secret committee, who, rumour has it, keep a low profile to avoid liability for damages.
The game can go on for hours but this year it was all over by 4.30pm when 28-year-old Stephen Flockett battled his way to victory.
Mr Flockett, who dedicated his win to his 16-month son Zachary, said: “I feel ecstatic.
"I have always wanted to win but I never thought I would.”
Sergeant Brian O’Connor, of Sedgefield Police, said the game had passed without incident.
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