TV star Robson Green experienced the thrills and spills of Alnwick’s ancient Shrovetide football match, as part of filming for the third series of Tales from Northumberland.
The 50-year-old actor was given a taste of the historic annual fixture yesterday afternoon during a staged re-creation of the brutal contest in the Pastures. He also visited The Alnwick Garden during his time in the town.
A group of more than 15 local players of varying ages, including veteran competitor Steven Temple, 42, joined the Hexham-born star for the kick-about, in the shadow of Alnwick Castle.
But as Robson soon discovered, the town’s Shrovetide match is not your usual game of football – with very few rules, no-holds-barred tackling, a furlong-in-length pitch and plenty of divots, bumps and mud.
After experiencing the fixture first-hand, he joined fellow players in the River Aln for the customary scramble to reach the match ball, which is always kicked into the water at the end of the contest.
The historic game – one of the highlights in the town’s calendar – is played each Shrove Tuesday between the parishes of St Michael and St Paul and players try to score goals, known as hales.
Robson, who wore a vintage Newcastle United football strip for the occasion, said: “Shrovetide football is brutal, very exciting and dramatic. It might not be as well known as the FA Cup or Wimbledon, but once a year Alnwick hosts one of Northumberland’s great sporting occasions. When it comes to drama, excitement, entertainment fun and something that sums up the heritage and history of Northumberland, Alnwick’s Shrovetide football is in a league of its own.”
As part of the filming, Robson spoke to committee secretary Archie Jenkins, who told the Gazette afterwards that it will be ‘tremendous publicity for Alnwick’s Shrovetide game’.
The Gazette understands that the show also has footage from this year’s contest, as well as archive clips, to use during the Shrovetide feature, which will form part of the third series of the popular Tales from Northumberland programme.
The award-winning, prime-time show follows Robson as he experiences the cultures and traditions of The Secret Kingdom and the theme of the up-coming instalment, due to be transmitted on ITV later this year, will be journeys.
The first two series have had a major impact on increasing visitor numbers to Northumberland and Robson told the Gazette that he is delighted to be making another.
This year’s Shrovetide football match was won by the parish of St Michael, in what was a typically muddy and fiercely-contested encounter.
The town fixture is a historic one, with the earliest recorded clash taking place in the streets in 1762. The Duke’s porter threw the ball over the castle wall to the masses to start play.
However, the fierce nature of the game resulted in great damage to property with windows being smashed, and so, in 1818, a law was passed throughout England banning football in the streets.
Despite this, the rebellious locals continued to play, ignoring the ruling up until 1827.
Once this was stopped, residents signed a petition asking the Duke for a safer place to play, which led to the Duke granting a pitch at the top of North Peth. Along with this, he erected the hales and awarded money for good play, with the scorer of the deciding hale taking the ball.
One year later, the first game took place in the Pastures. Freemen marched through the town and a band led the parade. In 1847, the game evolved into a battle between the parishes of St Paul and St Michael.
And so it continued until the First World War. With the Army having a huge camp on the Pastures, play stopped.
The annual event also failed to resume after hostilities in 1945 and in 1949 it was feared it would never be played again, but in 1952 the match was resumed by the Duke.
In 1967, as a result of agricultural issues, the pitch moved to its present position beside the River Aln.
Since then, the meeting between the two parishes was stopped only once – that was in 2001 following the foot-and-mouth outbreak.
The game is played in two periods of 30 minutes each. If the score is then even, a final period of 45 minutes is played. A period is ended once a hale is scored.
On the day, the fixture begins with the ball being dropped from the Barbican of Alnwick Castle and the players and spectators then march down the Peth to the match field, led by the Duke’s piper.
Prizes of £10 are awarded to the scorer of the first and second hales and £20 to the scorer of the third or conquering hale. Up to 20 prizes of £2 are awarded in recognition of good play.
Afterwards, the ball is kicked into the River Aln, prompting a mad scramble in the water to reach it first and carry it to the opposite bank.