One of the oddest and iconic events that take place in Gloucestershire is cheese rolling. While it may sound like British eccentricity at its best, in fact it is steeped in legend and has a historic legacy going back hundreds of years. Cheese rolling is hotly contested by locals and visitors from far away as this oldest of “extreme sports” captured the global imagination.
Although Double Gloucester cheeses in the past have weighed up to forty pounds in weight, in recent times the cheeses weight has decreased and between seven and eight pounds is the norm. At the top of a steep hill, competitors jostle and vie for position as the cheese rolling race begins with the starter announcing “One to be ready”, “Two to be steady” “Three to prepare” (at this point the cheese is rolled off the brow of the hill on the word “three”) and finally “Four to be off!”
The competitors then hurl themselves down the hill after the cheese invariably gathering speed, tumbling, and rolling themselves down the hill. Injuries are common but for the victor, the spoils of a £10 note and the cheese if they are the first to reach the bottom of the hill. Competitors only theoretically catch the cheese as a rolling cheese can achieve speeds up to 70mph.
There are traditionally five races at the famous Cooper’s Hill. The downhill events include a ladies race and an open race plus uphill races for adults and children under 12 years old. Cooper’s Hill has always been the main location for the cheese rolling which was originally just one event in a packed day of events known as Cooper’s Hill Wake.
In the 1800’s there were many different events as well as the cheese rolling including; “dancing for ribbons”, “wrestling for a belt”, “grinning through a horse’s collar for a cake”, “apple and orange bobbing” “bobbing for penny loaves smeared in treacle”'(must have been messy!) and “shin-kicking”. Shin kicking still continues to this day. As the event progressed these competitions were replaced by a flower show, climbing the maypole, tug-of-war, and coconut shies. Surely, it must be time to revive some of these old events!
The only event that survived along with cheese rolling were the children’s ‘scramble races where sweets that were scattered at the top of the hill after the main events and the children had to scramble up the hill to get the sweets. In the past, pieces of cake or biscuits were used thought to symbolise a fertility rite, performed for a good harvest.
Sadly, cheese rolling on Cooper’s Hill was cancelled in 2010 and 2011 due to crowd and traffic safety concerns. The event, a victim of its own success regularly attracted crowds of 15,000 or more. The local authority and health and safety experts deemed cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill too dangerous. Until proper crowd management, plans and conformance to health and safety rules are in place the event organisers are unable to continue. This is a topic of tremendous controversy.
However, in the meantime you can always visit “The Cheese Rollers” pub in the village of Shurdington, which takes its name from the event.
It is hoped in the future to reintroduce some of the old traditional games to future events once current issues are resolved. Keep an eye out for this event to experience fun, pure madness and something quintessentially British.