Ashbourne is a historic town mentioned in the Domesday Book as Essiburn, meaning ‘stream with many ash trees’. Often known as the gateway to the Peak, Ashbourne lies on the boundary of the red sandstone of Southern Derbyshire & the limestone of the White Peak. Weekly markets have been held in the square since 1296, and now take place every Saturday.
Originally, the town lay only to the north of the Henmore, with the tiny hamlet of Compton to the south. However, by the 13th century trade prospered in Compton as taxes could be avoided by trading on that side of the Henmore. Ashbourne itself being Crown Property had to pay taxes to the King. Both are now joined together, though the old village street retains the name of Compton.
A further most important distinction remains in that those who live north of the Henmore Brook are referred to as the ‘Up’ards’, and those to the south as the ‘Down’ards’. This decides the sides for the famous Royal Shrovetide football games, which take place on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday every year. The goals are three miles apart and traditionally the game is played without rules, although one ancient rule is that you must not murder your opponent, to which one or two others have been added.
The game starts at 2 pm at Shaw Croft, after the singing of the National Anthem. The ball is ‘turned up’, usually by some well known celebrity who throws the ball to the assembled crowd. In 1928, HRH the Prince of Wales turned up the ball and ever since then the title of the game has had the ‘Royal’ prefix. The game used to start in the market place, but was moved to try to avoid unnecessary damage from the roughhouse that follows. If a goal is not scored by nightfall, the game is ended.
Almost certainly the game has been played since medieval times by rival villages. There are even claims that it has pagan origins when a human head was substituted for the ball. And although several attempts have been made to stop it, because of the trouble it has created, it still survives in Ashbourne.
Look out for the Green Man and Black’s Head Royal Hotel. The inn sign stretches over the busy St John’s Street & was erected when the Blackamoor Inn joined with the Green Man in 1825. Though the Blackamoor is no more, the sign remains & claims to be the longest hotel name in the country. A young princess Victoria once stayed here & it was also one of Dr Johnson’s favourite places. He visited the town many times between 1737 & 1784 and he even had a favourite chair with his name on, which can still be seen at the Green Man.
When horse drawn transport began to be replaced by the railway, Ashbourne failed to get main line status, only being allowed a branch line to Uttoxeter. This restricted the development of the town as a major industrial centre, but did have the effect of enabling it to preserve its identity.
Described by George Eliot as ‘the finest parish church in England’ St Oswald’s Church has a lovely slender spire, 212 feet in height. Inside there is a large collection of impressive statues, the sculpture of Penelope Boothby, in pure white carrara, being nationally famous. The church was also mentioned in the Domesday Book, though most of what stands today dates to the 13th century.
Bull bating at one time took place in Ashbourne’s handsome, cobbled market place and just in front of the Wright Memorial was the ring to which the unfortunate beast was tethered. The memorial was erected in memory of Francis Wright a benefactor to the town, but not universally popular. His action in putting a stop to the annual fair, of which he disapproved, and his efforts to stop Shrovetide football did not go down well with many of the inhabitants.
In December 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie proclaimed his father as King James III, in Ashbourne Market Place, at the height of the Jacobite rebellion. He didn’t get much further in his advance northwards however, retreating after reaching nearby Swarkstone Bridge.
Arts and Crafts
Specialist art galleries and shops selling pictures, crafts, sculptures and pottery make the town an ideal place to visit if you are looking for an unusual gift. You can even watch craftsmen making glass wear at the crystal workshops in the town. The Tourist Information Centre on the market place is another place to find locally produced goods and other souvenirs.