It's an honour for Tim to paint Shrovetide ball ... and to see it get destroyed
EVERY year, as Christmas fades and a chilly new year dawns, there is only one thing on Tim Baker's mind – Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide.
Since the age of 17, the 39-year-old Ashbourne born-and-bred Down'ard has been painting one of two balls required for the famous annual football clash, and this year is no exception.
"I'm painting it now by hand; it's on my lap," says Tim, happily taking a phone call mid-task. "I've got a couple of days off work to crack on with it."
Painting the ball is no simple task. "It takes about three weeks of solid work," says Tim, of George Street.
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"I am very pleased with it this year. And, as artwork goes, I am very critical.
"I can't tell you what's on it. That will remain secret until it is revealed to the public."
Every ball is unique, featuring an intricate mix of designs and patterns in a vibrant mix of colours.
"Whoever is chosen to 'turn up' the ball briefs me on what they want and I create it using enamel paints. I sometimes help with ideas. It's not the easiest thing to decide what you want to have on the ball," says Tim.
This year's Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide takes place on February 12 and 13. Two painters work on a ball for each day, the other artist being Simon Hellaby.
"I usually paint for the Wednesday game and this year I am painting a ball for our local butcher Nigel Brown, who has been chosen to turn up the ball," says Tim. "Nigel is also vice-chairman of the Shrovetide organising committee.
"Turning up the ball is the greatest privilege Ashbourne can bestow on anyone. The honour is on a par with being given the freedom of a city.
"The organising committee decide who will turn it up each year and take on board suggestions. This year a local builder, John Tomkinson, will be turning up the ball on the Tuesday. He has played the game and goaled a ball in the past, which is not an easy thing to do."
Tim prefers to paint rather than get stuck into the massive scrummage as Up'ards and Down'ards (your "team" is decided by which side of the Henmore Brook you are born on) battle to goal the ball.
"It's too rough for me," says Tim. "I've never played."
Nevertheless, his dedication to the game will mean his name is woven into the history of an annual event that has made Ashbourne famous the world over.
"My involvement is all down to a former chairman of Royal Shrovetide, Philip Tomlinson. He used to be our milkman and became a friend of the family. He saw me painting and drawing as a lad. He came to me one day and asked if I'd have a go at painting the ball."
The rest, as they say, is history. Some 23 years later Tim is still painting the ball each year, dedicating many hours of his spare time away from his day job at Elliots Interiors of Ashbourne to the important task.
"Shrovetide has fallen very early this year so I haven't got much time," says Tim, who had the honour of painting a ball for Prince Charles in 2003. The royal bravely agreed to be carried through Ashbourne's streets by burly townsfolk before dropping the ball into thousands of waiting hands below.
"It was a great privilege to paint for him," says Tim.
Photos of the pristine ball, with its vibrant shades and intricate patterns, being held aloft by the man chosen (women have never been allowed to turn up a ball) provide an iconic image – but the ball does not stay like that for long. "The most galling thing for me is that, after weeks of work, there is practically nothing left of my artwork," says Tim.
The ball gets bashed, battered, manhandled, dunked under water, scraped and scratched in the spectacular game, which takes place through the streets.
"If the ball is goaled early, say after an hour, there may be a bit of the pattern left but, generally by the end of it, it's just brown and there's nothing left," says Tim.
Consequently, he is often asked to repaint the ball. "Occasionally, I have been asked to repaint a ball by someone who goaled one 20 years ago. If you goal a ball you get to keep it. If it is not goaled, whoever turned up the ball gets to keep it.
This means Tim's artistic talent is swallowed up whole by the Ashbourne game. On top of working full-time, painting and repainting, there's little time to use his skills for anything else.
But, like any Ashburnian worth his salt, he wouldn't have it any other way.
This article appears in full in the February issue of The Derbyshire Magazine, out now priced £3.