So Ashbourne comes highly recommended for a boozy day out in the Dales, but one possible drawback when visiting a place as touristy as this is the likelihood that the more traditional pubs and community locals, the ones that are of particular interest to me, may be in short supply. Thankfully this is not the case in Ashbourne, although it certainly is the case that the direction of travel for most of the towns pubs is toward a more upmarket food and drink offering than the traditional staples of Darts, Dominoes, and a few pints.
Wheel Inn remains pretty-much the same as it's always been, a seriously traditional locals pub on the fringe of the town centre. No food, just drinks, and the serious business of conversation and competition in all its myriad forms.
Landlord Steve Bull has been at the Wheel for over 25 years now, which is a rare and very welcome example of continuity in a trade which seems hell-bent on constant, often unnecessary change. Promoted as the towns premier sport and games venue, the Wheel covers pretty-much all bases in this regard. When I popped in on a warm Summer Sunday afternoon, the main focus in the bar was on what would prove to be a very successful innings by the England Cricket team in their World Cup match against India. If there's a major sporting event on the telly, chances are it'll be on here, and I doubt there's a better place to watch a sporting occasion than in the bar of the Wheel, chewing the fat with the locals over a pint or two of the excellent Draught Bass.
So sport is taken very seriously at the Wheel, and none more so than during the two days of a unique local football game for which the town has become internationally famous.
The Royal Shrovetide Football match is an ancient tradition that engulfs the town of Ashbourne on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday every year. A massive scrum between the towns Up'ards (those born North of Henmore Brook) and Down'ards (those to the south), the aim being to touch a stitched leather ball to your own sides goal post. The position of the two scoring points is a mere three miles apart, and a ball can only be 'goaled' by standing in the river!
The large leather balls used in the game are traditionally decorated ahead of being 'turned-up' for a game, and can often be seen displayed in prominent positions around the town. Indeed one can be seen hanging above the bar of the Wheel Inn in the photo above. Crucially, the pub is located to the south of the brook, and it's therefore no surprise that the Wheel is regarded as the spiritual home of the towns Down'ards. The 2019 match finished 1-0 to the Down'ards, an appropriate scoreline for a game of 'football', where a whole days play can finish without a hint of a ball being 'goaled' by either side, such is the passion that locals bring to the game. It must have been quite a night in the Wheel when victory was finally secured on the second day of the event.
Darts, Dominoes, Long Alley Skittles, and Pool in their respective leagues. Sunday is presumably a day of rest at the pub as there can't be many gaps in the weekly schedule to squeeze this level of competitive games play in.
The Long Alley Skittles team compete a little further afield than most, playing in the Second Division of the Belper & District Skittles League. The Wheel is something of an outlier to the core of venues in the Belper league, and this means an away match can involve a 25-30 mile round-trip, which represents quite a commitment to the game at what is currently the only venue for skittles in the town. The alley is a pretty basic outdoor affair at the rear of the pub, albeit with one of the most robust horseshoe 'chock holes' I've come across (above), and an increasingly rare uncovered alley at that. I've noticed that over the last few years, more and more alleys are being partially or fully covered against the weather, yet oddly enough, most of those which remain uncovered tend to be located in the Peaks and Dales, an area noted for its higher than average rainfall!