An ancient sporting challenge that took place in a North-East village yesterday, showed that the region has lost none of its Shrove Tuesday appetite for rough and tumble. Andy White reports

ONE of the North-East's most enduring sporting traditions was upheld in time-honoured manner yesterday.

The village of Sedgefield ground to a halt as shops boarded up their windows and residents, young and old, turned out in force for the annual Shrove Tuesday ball game.

The origins of the game, reckoned to have been played in the County Durham village for almost 1,000 years, are lost in the mists of time.

But the rules, such as they are, have remained largely unaltered for centuries.

The game was started at 1pm when village elder Senna Warnett passed the match ball three times through a bullring on the village green.

The 81-year-old has lived in Sedgefield for more than 50 years and was selected for the honour by the committee, members of which remain a closely-guarded secret.

The ball, slightly larger than a cricket ball, was then thrown into the waiting crowd, leading to a mad scramble of flailing arms and legs as participants battled for a touch.

It took just five minutes for the ball to be "kidnapped", whisked off to a local pub before reappearing 15 minutes later and back into the throng.

The event was marked by a gathering of former champions at the Hardwick Arms pub before the game, including 70-year-old Fred Lower, who claimed the match ball in 1967.

He said: "It was absolutely great to win it. To me, it was like winning the FA Cup. This game will never ever finish - the villagers won't allow it."

James Cain, 69, has chased the ball around the village every year since he was five and won the game in 1985.

He insists the match is not as rough as it used to be, adding: "It's very hard to win. You have to fight for it and you're not just allowed to take it. It's a rough and tumble game, and you have to stick in because, if you don't, you just get trampled on."

This year's winner was Paul Warnett, who passed the ball back through the bullring after three-and-a-half hours of play.

Police said the game passed with little incident, a couple of minor scuffles apart, and praised residents and participants for their good nature