41. River Football at Bourton-on-the-Water

On August Bank Holiday Monday each year at 4 pm, one of the Cotswolds’ most quirky and iconic events, which attracts media attention at home and abroad, takes place in the centre of Bourton-on-the-Water. The usually calm River Windrush, which is six to 10 inches deep, is invaded by two teams of players from Bourton Rovers Football Club battling it out for victory in the annual Football in the River match. 

The traditional match dates back more than 100 years and attracts hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators who converge on the rivers grassy banks in the picturesque Cotswold village to watch the match. Goalposts are set up in the river, with the pitch approximately 50 metres long by 9 metres wide. The game is usually about 20 minutes each half, depending on the temperature of the water.

There is a qualified referee in charge, and proper football rules apply. The players attempt to score as many goals as possible and the only difference is that the match is played in the river. Spectators come from far and wide to watch the match, and the crowd is usually Rovers’ biggest of the season. It’s a given that the players get a soaking but many spectators also get a drenching.

River football match organiser Matt Winter of Bourton Rovers FC said: “The game has been played for over 100 years now. Rumour has it that it was started by some bored men, so to break the boredom, they decided to jump in the river and have a kick about, and it’s carried on ever since.

 “The teams that play are Bourton Rovers 1st team v Bourton Rovers reserves, so there’s a bit at stake in the bragging stakes. It’s hard work—you ache for days and days afterward. We get average crowds of roughly 2,000 people, sometimes more, when it’s hot weather. It coincides with the Bourton Rovers fete, which is on the village green next to the river. The fete has stalls and games for kids and we also do duck racing in the river from 10 am until the river football starts.”

The annual river football match, which has been held for as long as the club has existed, is regarded internationally as a typically quirky British event.

In the last few years, it’s been filmed by BBC’s Countryfile programme and also on Channel 5, with TV presenters Adam Henson and Paddy McGuiness testing the waters to participate in the match. “We also get TV companies from Germany, Japan, and New Zealand to turn up nearly every year to film it,” added Matt.