What it’s like to take part in the Gloucester cheese rolling

I really, really like cheese – and if you’re reading this blog, the chances are you do too.

I reckon I like cheese much more than you though.

A bold claim, perhaps – but one that I think I can back up by revealing that I once risked life and limb in order to throw myself down a really steep hill, just to try and get my hands on a giant wheel of Double Gloucester!

Confused? Well at the beginning of 2018, I shared a post on this blog in which I provided a list of cheese-related events happening over the year – everything from National Cheese Lovers’ Day to the Melton Mowbray Artisan Cheese Fair.

But by far my favourite of all the events that I listed was the cheese rolling on Cooper’s Hill in Gloucester – in which dozens of intrepid souls race down the hill in pursuit of cheesy goodness every year on the ‘Whitsun’ bank holiday Monday at the end of May.

You’ll no doubt have heard of this wonderfully eccentric event. It’s been going for hundreds of years, and no-one seems entirely sure why it first started.

For as long as I can remember though, the Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling always seems to bag the ‘And finally…’ slot on the news every year on the day it’s held – and in the run-up to May 2005, my brother Al and I decided it was high time that we went to check it out for ourselves. What’s more, we didn’t want to be mere spectators – we wanted to actually take part!

Naturally, this decision caused a great deal of hilarity among our friends. In fact, one particular friend of ours worked at the time at the local BBC radio station in our home town of Nottingham – and as we set off in Al’s car early on the day to begin of journey down to Gloucestershire, we put the radio on and were surprised to discover that our planned exploits had been deemed worthy of being headline news! “Two brothers from Nottingham are heading to Gloucestershire today to take part in the annual Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling,” trilled the newsreader, “and are hoping to win the cheese for Nottingham!”

Clearly a quiet news day, but amusing all the same!

After a couple of hours in the car we arrived and parked up a short walk from the bottom of Cooper’s Hill. The streets were already packed, and we duly joined the throngs with people making their way to the event. What we hadn’t realised until we got there was just how steep the hill was – so steep in fact that it was quite difficult to climb.

By the time we wheezed our way to the top of the hill and looked down at what felt like an almost sheer drop, I was having serious second thoughts about whether it was actually such a good idea to take part. But we couldn’t back out now. After all, we’d travelled a fair way, and we’d also lose face – given that half the population of our home town knew we were intending to take part thanks to the mention we’d got on the local radio news!

One thing that was strangely refreshing though in this strange modern age of ‘health and safety gone mad’ was the fact that there was no registration process to take part or having to sign any kind of disclaimer – to take part, you simply had to get yourself up to the top of the hill.

As the start time for the event drew closer it started to get quite busy – both at the top of the hill, where dozens of intrepid souls were psyching themselves up ready for the challenge ahead, and also at the bottom and to the sides. It was a sunny day, and thousands of people had turned out to watch the spectacle.

I did detect a fair bit of tension though among those of us jostling for position to take part. Given that the Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling gets international news coverage every year, it’s perhaps inevitable that it now attracts people from far and wide – indeed, Al and I found ourselves next to a couple of guys from New Zealand, who’d travelled from the other side of the world to take part.

However, it was clear though that the locals weren’t all enamoured with the fact that the cheese rolling now has global appeal – and I remember one ‘tourist’ being met with considerable hostility from a group of more local participants. I heard the words “You’re not from Brockworth are you?” uttered quite aggressively more than once – Brockworth being the village immediately adjacent to Cooper’s Hill.

In view of this, Al and I decided, perhaps sensibly, to try and keep a low profile. Eventually though it was showtime – and we knew things were about to get underway when we heard a commotion behind us and the throngs of participants parted to herald the grand entrance of the cheese! Brilliantly, the cheese arrived at the top of the hill in a special trunk, an operation overseen by an old bloke wearing a special hat. Goodness knows how he ended up getting that job – his appearance generated considerable excitement though among the crowd, who immediately started chanting “Roll the cheese! Roll the cheese!” It all felt a bit Medieval – you could easily imagine the assembled throngs chanting “Burn the witch! Burn the witch!” in the same breath.

Suddenly though, without much warning, the cheese was removed from its trunk and launched down the hill – and that was mine and Al’s cue to join the dozens of other idiots in making our way after it. The next few seconds are a bit of a blur. My strategy had been to try and stay on my feet as I made my way down the slope, but the gradient of the hill was so steep that this was simply impossible and I quickly lost my footing. I duly continued my descent in a graceless mixture of forward rolls and roly-polies, colliding at various stages with other participants and ending up at one point with a mouth full of grass.

Before I knew it I was at the bottom of the hill, where I crashed to a halt into a line of haystacks that had been placed there for that purpose. Sadly I’d failed miserably to get anywhere near the cheese – although to be fair I quickly noticed that the gentleman who claimed the coveted prize was not looking in a good way, having launched himself down the hill with such vigour that he actually broke his arm during his descent! As I dusted myself down and inspected the various cuts and bruises that covered my body, I watched him get stretchered away by a St Johns Ambulance crew, proudly clutching the cheese tight to his chest with his good arm.

So there we go. The cheese rolling was an amazing thing to witness, let alone take part in – and every year since 2005 I’ve always made a point go online to read the news reports on how the event has gone. Over recent years there’s been no shortage of controversy. One year the local authorities in Gloucestershire formally announced that the cheese rolling was being banned due to health and safety fears – but a bunch of rebel cheese rollers still turned up at Cooper’s Hill and did it anyway. There’s not been any further attempts to ban it, the powers-that-be perhaps having accepted that they’re probably fighting a losing battle. In 2013 however, the person responsible for making the cheese – an 86-year-old woman called Diana Smart – was warned by police that she could be held responsible for any injuries sustained by anyone taking part in or spectating the event.

Who knows what the 2018 event will bring? If you want to find out first hand, I’d heartily recommend making the trip to Gloucestershire next Monday!


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