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Thursday, 17 April 2014

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The uppies and downies of England’s great traditions

THE battle for the Cloffocks is nothing new. On April 20, 1775 The Cumberland Pacquet claimed that some 2,000 combatants contested the ‘Uppies and Downies’ that Easter.

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DEFENSIVE COVER Millom’s Ben Postlethwaite lets fly, but his shot is blocked by Rovers’ Dave Woodburn ref: 50053626B001

Although this is the first surviving written report of the event, the same article alludes to its longevity even at that early time. It is fair to assume, considering the evidence of other mass ball games elsewhere in the country, that Workington’s annual bouts of rugby-stroke-mud wrestling are at least 400 years old.

The earliest English documentary record of mass teams competing with a ball on Shrove Tuesday is from an account by the Canterbury Monk, William Fitzstephen, written in 1174 of events in London. Gloucester Cathedral boasts wood carvings on the choir stalls depicting ball games that date from the 1300s. Five hundred years of conflict on The Cloffocks could be an underestimate.

This innings of half-a-millennium contrasts starkly with the supermarket empire that Jack built. Jacob Cohen opened his first self-service store just 60 years ago and the first one recognisable as a supermarket as recently as 1956. And now Goliath is coming to the Cloffocks – Tesco’s giant new store opens in Spring 2009.

The current MD, Sir Terry Leahy, is no doubt unaware of this forthcoming culture clash – a centuries old community festival with an unchanged and parochial agenda, pitched against the tents of modern Mammon.

The author and football historian Hugh Hornby has compiled a comprehensive catalogue of contemporary Festival Ball Games entitled ‘Uppies and Downies, the extraordinary football games of Britain’. He has identified 15 remaining venues where opposing crowds still do battle in local variations of these ancient games. Workington features prominently as the largest town hosting such an event, and the only contest comprising a three match series.

The geographical spread is impressive, ranging from the Christmas/New Year games of Kirkwall Ba’ in the Orkneys to the Shrovetide game of Hurling played with a silver ball in the Cornish town of St Ives.

Workington also takes the honours as the only Festival games currently still using the names of ‘Uppies’ and ‘Downies’. The afore-mentioned St Ives divide the town into ‘Upalongs’ vs ‘Downalongs’, Kirkwall into ‘Uppies’ and ‘Doonies’, Ashbourne into ‘Upards’ and ‘Downards’ and so on. Hornby explores these similarities and differences, explaining where he can the mix of social history and geography that has produced each unique event.

Some of the games take place within tight narrow streets, some in open fields, and some combine the two. Workington is similar to a number that follow a watercourse, dividing naturally into upstreamers and down. Some split into opposing factions along geo-social fault lines; town vs country, or tradesmen vs apprentices.

In Workington’s case the Uppies comprised of workers from the Curwen estate and miners from the Curwen-owned pits. The original Downie occupations were principally maritime – sailors, dockers and carpenters – later added to by the iron and steelworkers. Superimposed onto these trade divisions were added the political affiliations of the major employers.

The Uppie-sponsoring Curwens were renowned Whigs and social reformers, in contrast to the Tory Lowthers, who owned the steelworks and much of Whitehaven.

The number participating and watching over the centuries has ebbed and flowed as regularly as the tide in the Derwent. Today’s crowd of a thousand or so compares with documented reports of 10,000 in the late 19th century and an astonishing interwar boom of 20,000 in 1930.

These spectators and participants have had to adapt over the years to increasing development of the Cloffocks; each new railway and road bridge is another obstacle, and each new annexation of land for buildings or car parks is another reduction in the playing area. So far these encroachments have been successfully assimiliated into the play, the Workington ‘Uppies and Downies’ being noted for its variety of terrain. As Hornby himself puts it: “Workington has it all .. fields and streets, a beck and a river, embankments and culverts, roads and railways. In short, obstacles galore.”

From 2009 you can add petrol pumps and supermarket trolleys to the list. It could be the last battle – a centuries old community tradition, running pell-mell and muddy through the brightly-lit, disinfected aisles of modern consumerism. Meanwhile there is the next three match rubber to be run, starting Friday, March 21. Treasure your local heritage, turn out this year and lend your support – every little helps.

Hugh Hornby, author of Uppies And Downies, will give a talk and sign books at noon on Saturday March 22 at the Derwent Bookshop, Workington.

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