Come Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday which some countries celebrate by eating pancakes, St. Columb Major has far more important stuff to do than gorge itself on breakfast. Instead, the residents of this small, Cornish town are busy battering down the hatches, boarding up windows, and bracing themselves for a bizarre and brutal tradition that sees a mob of sweaty men tearing through its narrow streets and punching each other in the face.
Dating back to before the 16th century, "Hurling the Silver Ball" is considered to be the county's official sport (alongside Cornish wrestling) and involves the Townsmen and Countrymen engaging in what's probably best described as a lawless game of street rugby. The objective is to place a specially made silver ball in one of the goals set two miles apart at opposing ends of the town. But as I'd garnered from a couple of pretty violent stories, it's never that simple.
Once played all over Cornwall, only the towns St. Ives and St. Columb Major host the event today, so I recently headed to the latter to witness Cornish culture in all its belligerent glory.
A heavy expectancy loomed large in St. Columb Major on the day. The winding alleyways and numerous greasy food joints were bare, save for a few people shuffling along outside. Wooden planks and chicken wire covered shop windows. A storm was coming.
The "throw-up"—when the ball is lobbed into the crowd in Market Square to start proceedings—wasn't until 4:30 PM, so I hit The Silver Ball pub for a pint. On the walls, black and white photos of flat-capped, thick-armed Cornishmen in the act of hurling looked disappointingly civilized. The landlady assured me the afternoon would be nothing of the sort.
Out of nowhere, the mob gathered in the square. The serenity of the spot was quickly transformed into a bustling hum of simmering tension, with a police presence stoking the atmosphere as hundreds of hurlers turned out in rugby shirts and tracksuits. An olive-skinned guy sporting a fresh skin-fade haircut was holding the sacred ball and posing for photos.
Townsman Marco Ciarleglio, the 22-year-old son of a half-Italian fish and chip shop owner, was the reigning champion—the winner of the previous three events, in fact—and in no mood to relinquish his crown. As tradition dictates, he had "called up" hurling veteran and the 1977 titleholder Philip Tremain to do the honors. Being the champ is a big deal in these parts.
"I'd like to thank Marco very much indeed for inviting me to throw up the ball this afternoon. It's a great privilege and I'm very proud to do so," Tremain told the crowd from a stepladder after the town crier had rung his bells. "I hope we have a good hurl. Town and Country do your best, but in this parish I must rest. Hip hip, hooray!"
Tremain then tossed the silver orb—no larger than a cricket ball, but weighing in at just over a skull-shattering pound—into the cheering horde of young and old. It was chaos immediately, with bulging arms and white knuckles clawing into the scrum. Dull, fleshy smacks resonated as fully-grown men were obliterated onto the cold, harsh tarmac under the weight of the jostle. Somewhere buried inside all those protruding guts and grimacing expressions was the prized silver ball.
The game is over when a member of either Town or Country crosses a parish boundary with ball in hand, but for entertainment's sake players keep it in the town for at least an hour. The scrimmage slowly shifted south. Occasionally someone would break free with the ball, only to be collared and crushed beneath countess bounding bodies. At one point the free-for-all was fiercely condensed into a red phone box.
Throughout the action, play often came to a halt while the ball was gently passed to bystanders. The custom is meant to bring luck and increase fertility. Onlooking OAPs and children also touch the ball intermittently.
Despite these gestures, however, tempers flared. During an off-the-ball incident, an ageing hurler clocked a straight left square in the mouth from a stocky, irate Townsman. The old timer was staggered, his eyes glazed over as he swiped at the air in a dazed attempt at revenge.
Not long after, a young spectator no more than 12 years old picked up the loose ball and inadvertently launched it into an unfortunate girl's head. The sound of dense applewood encased in 4mm silver striking skull at high velocity will stay with me for some time. The girl collapsed to the ground as blood streamed down her face, and was soon ushered into a nearby house for an emergency A&E job before being rushed to hospital. The culprit appeared strangely calm and unapologetic, as if he'd simply flung a rock at a watermelon.
Just before the hour mark the commotion spilled onto the town's playing fields. Ciarleglio, who up until now had maintained a low profile for much of the event, edged into the fray and hovered with intent.
"The hour has passed!" someone shouted, like a medieval wizard. With that, Ciarleglio zoned in on the ball the moment it became loose and snatched it. He exited like a Tuscan greyhound. Jeering Countrymen looked on in despair as Ciarleglio disappeared down an alleyway, sprinting the two miles to the parish boundary goal and declaring a "Town Goal." I caught up with him during his victory march back into town as the light faded.
"I'm now hurling champ for the fourth time—I believe the record is 19 times in a row, so I've still got a way to go," he beamed. "Now we're going to put the ball in a gallon of cocoa to make Silver Cocoa for the kids to share, to spread luck. Then, from 8 PM onwards, we go to every single pub in the town and put the ball in a gallon of ale donated by Townsmen and Countrymen alike, to make Silver Ale, to share more luck. We'll have a good sing-song later on."
Ciarleglio also explained that he could buy the ball as winner, but he wasn't permitted to reveal its worth: "A hurling secret."
After changing out of their battle outfits, Ciarleglio and his hurling crew assembled in Market Square for a few triumphant chants. It was then onto his dad's chip shop to dip the ball in the cocoa for a few grateful kids, and plenty of slaps on the back for the champion.
A while later, two-time winner James Rogers and a Townsman lifted Ciarleglio onto their shoulders outside The Ring O Bells pub, singing joyously.
"Oh we rule, we rule / Town Ball we rule and we rule / we rule Town Ball, we rule / Oh we rule Town Ball and we all go marching on! / Hip hip, hooray! Hip hip hooray! / Tooooown Baallllll!"
The wide-eyed victor was carted into the pub and venerated long into the night. Silver Ale flowed freer than the river of blood that was spilled earlier on. Ciarleglio was king of Cornwall once again.