Bizarre food: The Annual Cheese Rolling Festival
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Picture this. A large group of gruff, sweaty men stand atop a hill in Gloucestershire, south-west England. They’re kitted out in a mismatch of multicoloured exercise gear, as if they’re about to embark on a cross country race. One could argue they are…sort of.
They’re nervous, restless, excited – all breathing heavily, waiting for the signal. Lining either side of the steep slope (it’s a 1:2 gradient), thousands of spectators have gathered. The air is buzzing with anticipation. And then, an older gentleman (he’s not going to risk this at his age) steps forward. The master of ceremony.
He belts out “one to be ready! Two to be steady! Three to prepare! And four to be off!”
A wheel of cheese (often 3-4kg in weight) goes hurtling down the hill. A split second later, the gabble of men quite literally throw themselves after it. The cheese can easily reach speeds of 70mph and the contestants seemingly not much less. They tumble, roll, summersault, bounce and somehow occasionally run 182 meters in pursuit, breaking legs, dislocating shoulders, fracturing arms and much worse. It’s like watching a video game with the rag doll effects turned all the way to realistic. They are lemmings, throwing themselves off the cliff.
The first lemming across the finish line claims the cheese as his prize along with a healthy dose of local fame and no doubt a few pints on the house that night. This is the annual cheese rolling festival at Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire.
Take a look at this video and try telling us the British aren’t a bit loopy. In fact, is there anything more quintessentially British than a festival where grown men throw themselves down a Gloucestershire hill in pursuit of a rolling wheel of cheese? We don’t think so. But how did this all come about?
The ‘race’ has been held annually on the UK spring bank holiday weekend for centuries. There are a few theories as to how it all came about. One is as simple as the fact that by holding the event, grazing rights on the commons are maintained. In other words, the rights of farmers to allow their livestock to feed in the area on and around Cooper’s Hill.
There are also suggestions that the event has a pagan origin. People were known to throw bundles of brushwood down the hill in the new year as this represented the end of winter. That is why, to this day, you’ll find the Masters of Ceremony scattering buns, sweets and biscuits down the hill, in order to encourage a better harvest.
What we do know is this – the first written evidence of the event taking place was found in a message from 1826. It was addressed to the Town Crier (public announcer) of Gloucester Town and it’s clear from this message that even then, the event was a very old tradition.
There are only 26 houses within the village of Cooper’s Hill and it’s the locals who can trace the event back further. There are family trees being traced with ancestral members recollecting the cheese rolling in the mid-1700’s. Even then, it was an event that was ongoing. There is evidence that the Romans held a fort here at the top of the hill and it’s thought that they may well have been the very first ones to make use of the steep slopes, sending things tumbling down them in an act of defence, or simply entertainment.
While it was no doubt a very local event for a long time, in recent years it has become world-famous. People now come from all over the world (as far as Nepal, Australia, Canada and more) to participate. Of course, it’s inevitable that there are injuries. Many of them, in fact. While thankfully, nobody has died from participating, the volunteer St. John’s ambulance crews are kept very busy, as are other volunteer ‘catchers’ who strategically position themselves along the course in order to assist struggling victims who can’t make it to the bottom or need other urgent help. To participate in the cheese rolling event is to accept that you will be injured. Even spectators are at risk of the flying wheel thwacking them in the head (it’s known to happen).
As the event grew in notoriety, news outlets around the world picked it up, leading to this brilliant quote from the Sydney Morning Herald in Australia. They described the event as
‘twenty young men chasing a cheese off a cliff and tumbling 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital’.
In fact, the event was considered so dangerous that in 2013, the cheese wheel itself was replaced with a fake! A police inspector paid a visit to traditional cheesemaker Diana Smart and her son Rod (they supply the cheese wheels every year). He advised her that by knowingly supplying cheese to the event, they could be held responsible and sued for any injuries. The replica fake of 2013 was made of foam but fortunately, the real cheese made a triumphant return in 2014.
The only other time the wheel hasn’t been cheese was during the years of world war two, when food was being rationed throughout the UK. From 1941 to 1954, they had to use a wooden wheel with a small piece of cheese in the middle. Sounds even more dangerous, doesn’t it? The Ministry of Food also had to give special permission for the cheese to be used in this way!
Because of the popularity of the event and the dangers involved, there has been no official supporter or event organiser since 2009. However, it continues to take place every year because of its deep, traditional roots within the local community. Even in 2020, with the Covid-19 pandemic cancelling the event, there is no doubt that the event will bounce back. If one thing can be guaranteed in Gloucestershire, it’s that a wheel of cheese will be flying down Cooper’s Hill every spring bank holiday for many more decades to come.