The Atherstone Ball Game, a tradition worth talking about
Every Shrove Tuesday, local, national and even international news outlets report on The Atherstone Ball Game, an ancient tradition still observed in the small town of Atherstone, North Warwickshire, England. Most of their reports involve brief clips or photographs portraying a scene of chaos, with men brawling in the street over a large, old-fashioned looking leather ball. In simple terms, that is what is happening because, for more than 823 years, the people of Atherstone have fought for the glory of being the man holding the ball when the klaxon sounds at 5 pm.
The brief exposure once a year attracts global attention in today’s age of TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and other social media. Clips appear as quickly as they can be posted and go viral, with outraged viewers clutching at pearls, exclaiming that such behaviour should be banned, questioning why it’s allowed to take place, and many commentators poking fun at the proceedings with ‘comedy’ commentary over videos of previous games. The game was featured on BBC’s The One Show in 2018, with Atherstone local and ball game competitor Scott Wright appearing in the studio to explain and defend the game. However, the feature provoked a raft of reactive commentary and only seemed to strengthen the feeling of negativity towards the game.
Living in Tamworth, just 5 miles down the A5, I was always aware of the game. Growing up before social media, my only exposure to it was seeing the Midlands Today or Central News reports while eating my Shrove Tuesday pancakes. Seeing a celebrity throw the ball out into the street and the people wrestling for the ball. I would later work as an estate agent in Atherstone and began to realise that this tradition meant a lot to the people of this unassuming and hard-working town.
Only years later, in 2020 and the early days of the Coronavirus lockdown, I watched a Netflix documentary about another English tradition, the Cheese Rolling of Coopers Hill in Gloucester. I had been developing my videography skills, and the 30-minute film, which focused on two young participants of the event, made me think that the Atherstone Ball Game deserved a similar film that captured the thoughts and memories of the people who love the game. I tentatively set about finding out who I should speak to that could be a way in, and a friend recommended I speak to Sean Glenn, who later eventually gave a great contribution to the film.
Cheese Rolling at Coopers Hill
With COVID being well and truly dug-in and lockdowns rife, I couldn’t move forward with the idea. Games were cancelled for the first time in the game’s history, and it wasn’t the time to make any kind of documentary about the game.
It wasn’t until late 2022, with the idea continually creeping back into my consciousness, that I decided to try to get the project off the ground. Another friend with local connections put me in touch with Rob Bernard, the Atherstone Ball Game committee chairman, and I told him about my idea.
Earning Atherstone’s trust
Due to the general negativity towards the game, Rob was unsure. I completely understood his position, he is protective over the game which means so much to the town but is an easy target for people looking to exploit it for their own ‘likes’ and exposure. We met one evening at a neutral location, Appleby McDonalds, to be precise, and we discussed my plan over a coffee. I assured Rob that I intended to make a documentary that focused on the history and meaning of the game from the inside out, without satire or mockery of any kind. If Rob hadn’t felt he could trust me and didn’t give his blessing, I wouldn’t have proceeded with the production.
Getting the ball rolling
Delighted that Rob was keen to be involved, and with the added bonus that he informed me he makes the ball himself in his workshop, I arranged an initial filming date. On a Sunday morning in December 2022, I visited Rob, and we filmed the first session.
Rob Bernard, Chairman of the Atherstone Ball Game Committee.
During that first shoot, I learned more about the history of the game than I had ever realised. It was 823 years old. To put that in perspective, the ball game, in its original form, was taking place 660 years before the American Civil War. In fact, it was taking place nearly 300 years before Christopher Columbus discovered America on his way to prove the earth was round! This new-found knowledge only made me more excited to hear from other people to whom the ball game means so much.
I joined the Atherstone community Facebook group and posted about the project and that I’d be filming in Grendon, a village on the outskirts of Atherstone, on a Saturday afternoon in January, and invited people to come along if they wanted to take part.
On the day, I went to Grendon’s Working Men’s Club, where the landlady had kindly agreed to let me film. I set up my lights, microphones and cameras and waited anxiously to see if anyone would show up. I needn’t have worried, as a great turnout and some brilliant interviews and stories meant that I was beginning to get some quality material for what I thought would turn into a 30-40 minute documentary.
Filming at Grendon WMC
I added further filming dates at various locations in Atherstone, including Witherley, The Legion, The Hat & Beaver and The Conservative Club, and got more and more contributions, with participants bringing photographs, newspaper clippings and other souvenirs that brought their stories to life. I was starting to realise that the finished film may run for well over 40 minutes.
Passion amidst tragedy
One participant I had been recommended to film with was Harold Taft, a former game stalwart, organiser and committee chairman. I arranged to film with Harold at his home, where he kept many artefacts from the game, including match balls, newspaper clippings and scrapbooks. On the filming date, I messaged Harold to check that we were still good to go, and he informed me that his wife, Christine had been taken ill and that we would need to reschedule. A few days later, I learned that Christine had sadly passed away. Harold would later agree to complete the filming still, at the encouragement of his family, who said that Christine would have wanted him to do it. I am forever grateful for Harold’s contribution to the film, and Christine is honoured in an emotional moment from Harold.
Filming the game
On Tuesday 21 February 2023, I travelled to Atherstone and met a friend, Nik Bauer, who had volunteered to help film the game. We got our cameras set up, put on hi-vis vests and roughly agreed what each of us would be doing. We filmed the build-up to the game, capturing the excitement of the locals. The day before, I had filmed shopkeepers and landlords boarding up their premises, and the town was ready. At 3pm, the game began, and after the initial melee after the ball was thrown into the street from the Conservative Club balcony, things calmed down and just as the contributors had described, women and children were given the opportunity to kick the ball up and down Long Street, with the event having a fun, carnival type atmosphere.
At around 4.20pm, things became more intense, and the serious competitors began to battle for the ball. People packed tightly into a crowd around the group of men, trying to keep hold of the ball, and before long, the ball had found its way into the doorway of a betting shop. This is where it stayed until 5pm, when the klaxon finally sounded and the winners were declared, but not before a monumental struggle from various competitors to get into the doorway and take control.
The joy of the winners and their supporters was clear to see, and as the crowd dispersed, steam billowed outwards from the group still huddled around the ball. I had never seen anything so physically intense before. It was a real spectacle.
The winners made their way to the Conservative Club, and I was able to film the celebrations and capture an interview with the winners, who gave a great account of themselves despite the physical ordeal they had just experienced.
Aftermath, and editing
Two weeks after the game, I visited Witherley United Football Club, where I had previously filmed contributions. I learned about the money being raised for charity, a big part of the tradition of the game. I got further contributions from Rob Bernard, and some of the ball game winners, and it was a fitting way to finish off the filming part of the project.
My initial aim was to finish the documentary by the summer of 2023, but a busy schedule and some procrastination delayed it by several months. Many interviews had to be cut as the running time was heading for well over 90 minutes. I had to make difficult decisions on cutting, but I felt that the run time was about right, especially considering the quality of the contributions.
Music was always going to to play a big part in the edit, and I identified two songs by The Sherlocks, that I wanted to feature. I emailed the band and was permitted to use the tracks. Sirens is a rousing song that fits perfectly to the montage of the ball game, and Slip Road is a perfect ending theme.
I wanted to use ‘Everything Comes for Free’ by Tamworth band The Livintones, as the opening theme, and it works as intended, setting the scene at the start of the film. ‘Moving on to Yesterday’ and ‘Acid Boom!’ by The SRB make great background tracks and ‘We Were Just Kids’ by Tom Byrom fits the emotion of the section where many interviewees talk about their memories of the game.
‘Howl’ by Amington Shores & Cigaretiquette is a perfect track that captures the atmosphere in the town the day before the game.
You can listen to all the music used in the film in this Spotify Playlist
Everything & Nothing: The Atherstone Ball Game
Finishing the film in late January 2024 felt like the perfect time. With the next ball game just weeks away, it had a great reaction and I was delighted to receive so many messages of praise and thanking me for doing the ball game proud. There will always be negativity towards the game, but I hope anyone with a strong opinion after seeing a 20-second TikTok or Facebook clip will take the time to watch the film and see what it means to the people of Atherstone, old and young, and how such traditions should be preserved, as part of English heritage.
View the full film on Youtube here.