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“It’s not pancake day” – the unlikely Shrove Tuesday tradition you’ve never heard of

To most of us, Shrove Tuesday is known for being the one day of the year when eating a huge stack of Nutella-slathered pancakes for any meal of the day is entirely acceptable. However, in the village of Sedgefield in County Durham, pancakes take the back seat. Every year, the village comes together for what is known simply as ‘the ball game’ – a ruthless competition to beat competitors and win the sought-after ball itself (small, hard and made of leather, perfect for breaking windows – and noses). Not only does the victor win the ball, but also the respect of the other villagers and the right to bathe in their glory for the rest of the year.

Businesses in the centre of the village board up their windows in preparation for the game.

The tradition is estimated to go back over 950 years, making it a hugely important part of the village’s history. It was traditionally a game played between local tradesmen and farmers, the predominant forms of employment in the village for many years. Only one woman has ever won the game, in 1969.

A statue commemorating the ball game stands in front of the historic St Edmund’s Church in the centre of Sedgefield.

A board listing the names of winners since 1869 is displayed in one of the village’s pubs.

The game is kicked off every year by one of the village’s older residents. They pass the ball three times through a large metal bull ring in the centre of the village, and the game begins. To win, an individual must take the ball to a stream at the bottom of the village and dip it in three times. They must then return it to the bull ring and put it through another three times before they become the winner. It doesn’t sound particularly difficult, but there are also around 500 other people trying to do the same thing – and they don’t pull any punches! The game has no rules, other than those necessary to win the game; it is often speculated that participants use the opportunity to give their adversaries an ‘accidental’ kick when aiming for the ball. By the end, there are a lot of people looking a little worse for wear.

And age is irrelevant – people of all ages take part, young and old. It is considered very lucky to kick the ball, so parents of small children often bring them to try and get a kick.

The bull ring in the centre of the village – before the game!

The ‘scrum’ fighting for the ball.