Hurling the Silver Ball is one of Cornwall's most ancient and intriguing customs. The game, also known as Cornish Hurling, dates back at least one thousand years, is of unknown origin, and involves much physical rough and tumble as each side (traditionally the 'countrymen' and 'townsmen' of a particular parish) tries to keep possession of a cricket ball-sized ball made of apple wood coated in silver. These days, Cornish Hurling has all but disappeared, although it is still played once a year in St Ives and St Columb Major, near Newquay.
Hurling the Silver Ball forms an essential part of St Ives Feast, which takes place on the first monday after february 3rd and celebrates the anniversary of the consecration of the parish church of St Eia, in 1434. Each year processions of musicians, townsfolk and schoolchildren make their way through the town's narrow, cobbled alleyways wearing pieces of ivy in rememberance of St Eia, the patron saint of St Ives, who is believed to have made her way across the sea from Ireland on a boat made of ivy. At half past ten the mayor makes her way to the steps of the church and 'throws up' the silver ball, which has been blessed in the holy well of St Eia in readiness for the annual hurling competition.
In earlier times the game, now largely played by children and teenagers, took the form of a competition between the locals of St Ives and neighbouring Lelant (whose feast day is the 2nd february), with the town's respective parish churches (several miles apart) used as 'goals'. When the population of St Ives began to far outstrip that of Lelant, the game moved to St Ives, where the mayor throws the ball from the steps of the church to a huge rugby scrum on the beach below, which then spends several hours engaged in a rough and tumble for possession of it, often travelling as far afield as Carbis Bay and back. In the meantime the procession slowly make its way to the Royal Square, where the mayor hands out silver pennies to the smallest children in the crowd, and waits for the clock to strike noon, at which point the winning gang of dishevelled teenagers, complete with a name such as 'Bling Bling', stumbles up the steps with the silver ball in order to claim their prize, a five shilling piece.
In St Columb Major the game takes place on Shrove Tuesday, and is still played by men, as opposed to teenagers. Shopkeepers barricade doors and windows to avoid damage as thousands of spectators flock to this tiny town in order to witness a truly remarkable spectacle. Starting with a 'throw-up' in the market square, local men pass, throw, snatch and tackle for the ball in the streets (still open to traffic) and on private property (people's gardens, fields, houses and pubs), with the objective of landing an own goal - for the countrymen a granite trough in a nearby field, for the townsmen an ancient celtic cross. The game can also be won if a team manages to get the ball across the parish boundary, which allows St Columb Major to claim that it has the largest pitch for any ball game in the world, around twenty square miles!
In keeping with the game's origins, which are thought to be Pagan, the rough and tumble is paused if a member of the public wishes to handle the ball, traditionally thought to bring health and fertility. Once a winner is established, he returns the ball to the market square and proceeds to visit every pub in town, ceremoniously dipping the ball in his pint and sharing it with those present. If this appeals to you and you decide to give it a go do bear in mind that the three stone circles near Minions, known as The Hurlers, are thought to be the remains of men turned to stone as a punishment for hurling on a sunday!