After being cancelled for 2 years due to the pandemic, Uppies and Downies has come back with a bang and for my first time watching, made for a surprisingly wholesome experience…
There are some things that just make Cumbria, Cumbria and one of those things is undoubtedly Uppies and Downies, a 350-year-old traditional no-rules ballgame that runs over Easter every year.
As a Cumbrian myself, shockingly, only at the grand old age of 22 did I get myself down to my first 3 games.
Not quite sure what to expect, I parked smack bang in the middle of Workington’s desolate leisure centre carpark. But upon sorting out my cameras and tripods, a kind man pulled up alongside me, grinning from ear to ear “First time?” he said, “You’ll want to park your car somewhere else.”
In its nature as a no-rules ballgame, Uppies and Downies is chaotic in the very best way possible.
Spectators are a mixed bunch, from the elderly to teenagers to children, to babies, families, and friends, as well as people on a bit of a night out and the odd person causing trouble.
There are two teams, and the aim is to get a specially made ball (that is made annually for each of the games) to either the top of Workington or the bottom.
The Uppies aim for the top at Workington's Curwen Hall and the Downies aim for a capstan on the Prince of Wales’ dock at the harbour, whoever gets there first and ‘hails’ the ball by throwing it up in the air three times, wins the game.
But without any rules the opposing teams smash themselves together in a rugby scrum-like formation, moving heavily and suddenly in different directions, causing spectators to scatter, screaming and running away whilst laughing.
Players come out of the scrum shoeless, pant-less, or covered head to toe in mud with the occasional bloody nose or knee.
There’s also plenty of fence hopping, shallow river crossing, and clambering over cars- the scrum will cross any obstacle in the fight to win the game.
As a first-timer, you are quickly swept up in the adrenaline rush that comes with escaping the scrum, and if you’re photographing the event, it’s even more of a game of cat and mouse, as you spend your time moving back and forth, running up to the scrum and then away from it.
Several times throughout the three days I went, I was used as a springboard by men hurling themselves over my shoulder and I was frequently dodged and bumped into whenever the ball flew into the air away from the scrum, which would send players into a frenzy to get to it first.
At one point, I even became part of the scrum, my heart was well and truly racing as the ball came flying towards my head, and yet, strangely enough, the players pushed me out of the way as gently as they could, whilst still pushing and fighting one another for the ball.
There’s also the occasional break-away sprint in my case this year, a spectator catching the ball and throwing It back in a panic to avoid being rushed by the players, which elicits various ‘ohs’ and ‘ahs’ from spectators.
And yet, despite the constant looming threat of injury, there have only ever been 4 recorded deaths in the game’s history, all of which happened back in the 18th and 19th centuries.
As a mark of respect, the town has paid regular tributes to the people who lost their lives playing their beloved game.
The game has also recently been used as a way to raise money for charity, and with thousands of spectators attending, thousands of pounds are raised for local causes.
For me, the moments when the ball is caught and hurled in the opposite direction were the most exciting, watching the crowd rush to watch and that feeling of uncertainty and anticipation over who would win, especially during the very final match was nail-biting and exhilarating all at once.
So, why a ‘quintessential’ Cumbrian experience?
Uppies and Downies really brings people together. If someone falls, everyone around them will rush to pick them up and it really stands as a testimony to how compassionate the people of Workington can be.
Upon escaping the scrum or chanting for your team, eyes meet, and smiles are exchanged near constantly.
There’s an inescapable joy to be experienced between strangers and for me, it really enhanced that feeling of belonging and feeling at home.
Even though my accent isn’t fully Cumbrian, and I come from Egremont, where Crab Fair is our local ‘thing’ everyone still welcomed me with kindness and a willingness to talk about why Uppies and Downies is so important.
Yes, there’s the occasional fight or drunken brawl, but it wouldn’t be a big public event without them, and everyone who is there to watch knows the people causing trouble are just spoiling it for everyone else.
Overwhelmingly, there is a comfort to be found in some traditions, and Uppies and Downies is one of them.
It’s a game that some people have made a pilgrimage to watch for their entire lives and an experience that just feels thoroughly Cumbrian.
At my second game, I started chatting with Colin Heron, a lifelong Uppie and Workington resident who met his wife at the games when he was a child.
That day, Colin was feeling the tension, after the Downies had won the first game of the year.
When I asked Colin what the game meant to him, he said: "It's tradition, the guys over there have been coming for most of their lives really, they're the traditionalists."
"It's the younger people you can see on the outskirts now that have got to carry it on for the future."
Talking more about the game's impact, he said: "With the ball, basically it's been all over the world, people have sent it away to families who are living abroad, so it's got a big impact, not just locally, but nationally."
For me, it's the familiar faces, kindness, humorous exchanges, a sense of belonging, and small places feeling like your entire world, that all makes up for Uppies and Downies feeling like a microcosm of life in Cumbria overall.
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