Shrovetide football in Sedgefield

Today was my first experience of photographing a Shrovetide football match, and what an experience. Steeped in tradition, the game,which begins with the small hard ball being passed through a bull ring three times, has evolved over the years. It goes on for three hours, though if the ball enters a pub, the entire game ceases and everyone enjoys a pint. The aim is for an individual to retrieve the ball from the beck at 4pm and return it to be passed once again through the bull ring. There are no boundaries and the match spills onto the roads, with any traffic having to wait for the brawling crowds to move on. Police guard the local church yard but other than that they turn a blind eye to the pile-ons and hard tackles which can often lead to injury. Despite the grueling nature of the game, if the ball reaches a female or child the action stops instantly and they are given chance to kick the ball away. There is an underlying respect for the rules and if someone calls a stop to a fight, the perpetrators listen. At 4pm the weary participants make a victory lap of the village which has expanded over the years into housing estates. Their ripped clothes, cuts and bruises worn like a badge of honour. Some local businesses take their chances while others board their windows to protect from a rogue ball or contender. Crowds gather in the pubs and young girls line the streets to take in the excitement of the day. Children closely follow the action, waiting for the day they can join in and get a kick of the sacred ball.