An unchanged but much loved ancient tradition

The origin of Uppies and Downies is lost to history now. 

There are plenty of theories why the event came to be part of Workington’s folklore but it’s universally agreed that no one really knows.

That’s the special thing about the Easter event, it’s just always been around.  The first reference to Uppies and Downies was in the ‘The Cumberland Packet’ back in 1751 and even then they called it the ancient street game of Workington.

In a world where traditions are lost and things are not what they used to be, it’s satisfying to know the Uppies and Downies has not changed from those ancient days.  Sure some developers thoughtlessly placed buildings in the way but the players ignore them as they follow rules (or lack of) set long before anyone can remember.

Photo courtesy of D.Woodruff

Everyone I asked pointed me in the direction of Ian ‘Tut’ Johnson to explain how the event is organised: “It’s not organised, that’s the thing.  It’s a happening rather than a game and all that happens is the ball is made, the Sponsor goes down at 6:30 and sets the game off.”

There are other similar events scattered over Great Britain but some bring in tourists to watch and others, shockingly, invent new rules to pacify local authorities.

That hasn’t happened in Workington because the relative isolation of the town keeps the crowds at bay and, as for the rules, they are vague and tend to follow an ancient feeling of fair play that is long gone elsewhere.

Tut rattles off a whole range of facts – the fastest game was over in six minutes, while the longest one wasn’t finished until the next day, and in a first, Nathan Askew hailed all three balls last year.

I met him in his back shed and it’s refreshing to know that whatever decisions are made for the game are not contemplated by people in suits out of offices.  Tut points out that the balls are made on a kitchen table and have been for the past 40 years by Mark Rawlinson.

“It takes about 30 hours to make each ball,” explained Mark. “ There’s a wet and dry procedure so it can’t all be done at once.  I started making them in 1979 and I took over from James Elwood who had a saddle shop and was a taxidermist, he’d been making the ball since 1905 and his father made them before that.”

Mr Elwood made the balls for 75 years and it’s sobering to think there have only been two ball makers in over a century.

I press Mark on how he feels about his role in this historic game:  “The thing is I’m quite shy and I’d rather leave it to the guys that play the game.  Someone once said to me you are a small cog but you help make the big cogs turn and I think that’s appropriate.”

The ball for Tuesday match this year is a very special one, it celebrates the victory of the First World War in 1918.  Victory in the war was not officially ‘hailed’ until Easter of 1919 and there would have been returning soldiers playing in that game.

“That’s why we’ve created this special edition of the ball,” said Mark. “ It’s our way of honouring those that have fallen and fought for us.  With the decorative artwork and the gold beading this is one ball that is bound to be hard fought over.”

I also had a chance to catch up with David Sheppard who has hailed three balls over the years and he tells me what that means: “They are a trophy but each one is memory and each ball is different which tells a story.  The leather might be darkened from being in the beck or the river and maybe there’s a scar or a mark on the ball but there’s a story to it all and that is irreplaceable.”

So when the ball is thrown and the game is on this Easter weekend it’s important for the players to remember it’s not just the glory of hailing the ball that counts.  Possibly more significant is you’re participating in an ancient tradition and one that’s not changed for the modern world.

And that’s very rare where everything can change overnight.

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