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Cheese Rolling on Cooper's Hill, Gloucester

PUBLISHED: 16:42 04 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013

contestants tumble down

contestants tumble down

This chronicle of cheese-rolling is a fascinating tale of how many obstacles have been overcome tp preserve our traditions. by June Lewis

As during the month of May the birds sing and the daisies flower, hordes of young and not so young people with flabby muscles make their way towards Cooper's Hill, a hill that is 287m high, not far from Gloucester. At exactly 2 o'clock, Cooper's Hill Cheese Roll begins, an event which may be described as 'The chase of the round cheese', a tradition that is 200 years old.


The cheese in question is a Double Gloucester, made by local cheese-maker, Diana Smart, a wheel of about 30cm diameter, which weighs 4kg; it will go to whoever catches it. The Double Gloucester, perched on the edge starts off; a crowd launch themselves in pursuit. But as the slope is horrifyingly steep - 60 degrees at the top, 40 degrees at the bottom - only a few are left standing. The public watch a cheese happily reaching 50km/h, followed by a jumble of arms, legs and laughter.


Some years one can count up to 24 contestants, 7 spectators and 2 ambulance men with various degrees of injury. In 1997, the winner, Craig Carter, broke his left arm; while the nurses treated him, someone stole the cheese.


(Translated from Le Progress, published in Lyon on 13 August 2000.)


The madcap Cotswold custom of chasing 'the round cheese' caught the eye of the international press before this (slightly inaccurate account) was featured by a French journalist. The Chicago Tribune reported on the 'peril of Cheese Rolling' in 1995, and in 1999 the fact that the 'historic race returns to England' after it had been cancelled the previous year for safety reasons made news in The Wall Street Journal, attracting over 2,000 people from across Britain 'to help, watch or participate in the quirky yearly races that organisers say are hundreds of years old'. Additional safety measures included more fencing and the hiring of a mountain-rescue team, as well as the usual ambulance crew, and moving the race to noon from the previous time of 6 pm, to prevent runners from drinking too long in the pub beforehand.


The return of the chase in 1999 attracted the Canadian press who asked in the International Express,'Who said a cheese roll was boring?' and dubbed Steve Brain 'Treble Gloucester', after an unprecedented hat-trick of victories in the men's races. The South African free ads newspaper made a dramatic line of 'crumpled bodies lay writhing on the ground, surrounded by teams of green-coated paramedics' in its report of 'the madcaps risking life and limb in the bizarre contest which is part of a hallowed calendar of time-honoured eccentricities in Britain'. The Japan Times also found the custom worthy of serious report and described the scene in detail, including the white coated Master of Ceremonies 'with a red flower in his breast pocket and a black top hat decorated with ribbon' who is always the key figure in this age old Cotswold custom enacted for centuries on, down and up Cooper's Hill - for there are races - more akin to crawls up on hands and knees on the precipitous slope.


The Master of Ceremonies is in charge at the top of the hill and decides who should be in a race and gives the starting orders. The original white smock has been replaced by a white coat, but the red peony, white lilies of the valley and blue cornflowers picked from the garden of Brookes Cottage on the hill are traditionally sported as a distinctive buttonhole. Tradition rules the whole event as far as practicalities of our modern age allows; but the children's sports, dancing round the maypole and scrambling for buns linger on only in long memories, although scrambling for sweets still takes place, donated by kindly local residents. One person's whole year's sweet rations would have been needed to supply the sweets during wartime, but the custom of scattering some treats was met by potato crisps and a few biscuits.


As is the way of the resolute folk of the Cotswolds rooted in their customs, wartime restrictions of 2 ounces of cheese a week did not deter the organisers - they simply made a wooden replica and concealed a tiny piece of cheese inside a hole inside it in order to maintain the tradition of rolling a real cheese. Wooden discs have often been used as cheese has broken up in its 70 mph hurtle down the hill, and these have been exchanged, of course, for the real cheese by the winner. Examples of wooden 'cheeses' used at Cooper's Hill are to be seen at Gloucester Folk Museum and one was featured some ten years ago on the BBC antiques quiz programme Going for a Song. In the past, cheeses used in the rolling have weighed as much as 35 lb, but in recent years they have been standardised to 7-8 lb. Kept in their cheesecloth, then sealed in polythene and protected by a cardboard disc on each side, tightly taped to prevent disintegration and decorated with a red and blue cross, the Double Gloucester cheeses have been made for over the past twenty years by Diana Smart of Churcham. Mrs Smart is the only remaining person in Gloucestershire who makes Double Gloucester cheese by hand using traditional methods according to Jean Jefferies who has just published a book on Cheese Rolling at Cooper's Hill, after a decade researching old records and talking and photographing the people involved.


It is the origin of the custom that poses the greatest question: theories abound as to how it all started and the most quoted ones are that it is a re-enactment of a pagan ceremony to celebrate the summer solstice - as it was held in midsummer in days of yore - but another feasible reason is that it originated from the local people conforming to some ancient rite to secure their rights to common pasturage. Perhaps what is more important than how it all began is how it has survived the centuries to become so much a part of our treasured folk heritage. The chronicle of the Cheese Rolling is a fascinating record of the people who have organised, rolled and chased and made the famous cheese through the years, but also unfolds some dramatic facts of how they have overcome many difficulties and obstacles to ensure its continuity. Doggedly determined that despite the official cancellation imposed in 1998 for safety reasons the age-old custom would be honoured there was 'an illicit cheese roll on the hill under cover of darkness' as reported in The Daily Telegraph; similar headlines appeared in a number of other national papers, and even made a BBC news item. The closing of public footpaths during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001, and an earthquake in far-off Algeria which sent medical cover from Rapid UK away from the event to help in the disaster are just two instances which curtailed the programme but, as usual, a token race was run and the tradition upheld to continue to thrill the thousands who will once again enjoy the madcap capers on Cooper's Hill on May Bank Holiday Monday.


As during the month of May the birds sing and the daisies flower, hordes of young and not so young people with flabby muscles make their way towards Cooper's Hill, a hill that is 287m high, not far from Gloucester. At exactly 2 o'clock, Cooper's Hill Cheese Roll begins, an event which may be described as 'The chase of the round cheese', a tradition that is 200 years old.


The cheese in question is a Double Gloucester, made by local cheese-maker, Diana Smart, a wheel of about 30cm diameter, which weighs 4kg; it will go to whoever catches it. The Double Gloucester, perched on the edge starts off; a crowd launch themselves in pursuit. But as the slope is horrifyingly steep - 60 degrees at the top, 40 degrees at the bottom - only a few are left standing. The public watch a cheese happily reaching 50km/h, followed by a jumble of arms, legs and laughter.


Some years one can count up to 24 contestants, 7 spectators and 2 ambulance men with various degrees of injury. In 1997, the winner, Craig Carter, broke his left arm; while the nurses treated him, someone stole the cheese.


(Translated from Le Progress, published in Lyon on 13 August 2000.)


The madcap Cotswold custom of chasing 'the round cheese' caught the eye of the international press before this (slightly inaccurate account) was featured by a French journalist. The Chicago Tribune reported on the 'peril of Cheese Rolling' in 1995, and in 1999 the fact that the 'historic race returns to England' after it had been cancelled the previous year for safety reasons made news in The Wall Street Journal, attracting over 2,000 people from across Britain 'to help, watch or participate in the quirky yearly races that organisers say are hundreds of years old'. Additional safety measures included more fencing and the hiring of a mountain-rescue team, as well as the usual ambulance crew, and moving the race to noon from the previous time of 6 pm, to prevent runners from drinking too long in the pub beforehand.


The return of the chase in 1999 attracted the Canadian press who asked in the International Express,'Who said a cheese roll was boring?' and dubbed Steve Brain 'Treble Gloucester', after an unprecedented hat-trick of victories in the men's races. The South African free ads newspaper made a dramatic line of 'crumpled bodies lay writhing on the ground, surrounded by teams of green-coated paramedics' in its report of 'the madcaps risking life and limb in the bizarre contest which is part of a hallowed calendar of time-honoured eccentricities in Britain'. The Japan Times also found the custom worthy of serious report and described the scene in detail, including the white coated Master of Ceremonies 'with a red flower in his breast pocket and a black top hat decorated with ribbon' who is always the key figure in this age old Cotswold custom enacted for centuries on, down and up Cooper's Hill - for there are races - more akin to crawls up on hands and knees on the precipitous slope.


The Master of Ceremonies is in charge at the top of the hill and decides who should be in a race and gives the starting orders. The original white smock has been replaced by a white coat, but the red peony, white lilies of the valley and blue cornflowers picked from the garden of Brookes Cottage on the hill are traditionally sported as a distinctive buttonhole. Tradition rules the whole event as far as practicalities of our modern age allows; but the children's sports, dancing round the maypole and scrambling for buns linger on only in long memories, although scrambling for sweets still takes place, donated by kindly local residents. One person's whole year's sweet rations would have been needed to supply the sweets during wartime, but the custom of scattering some treats was met by potato crisps and a few biscuits.


As is the way of the resolute folk of the Cotswolds rooted in their customs, wartime restrictions of 2 ounces of cheese a week did not deter the organisers - they simply made a wooden replica and concealed a tiny piece of cheese inside a hole inside it in order to maintain the tradition of rolling a real cheese. Wooden discs have often been used as cheese has broken up in its 70 mph hurtle down the hill, and these have been exchanged, of course, for the real cheese by the winner. Examples of wooden 'cheeses' used at Cooper's Hill are to be seen at Gloucester Folk Museum and one was featured some ten years ago on the BBC antiques quiz programme Going for a Song. In the past, cheeses used in the rolling have weighed as much as 35 lb, but in recent years they have been standardised to 7-8 lb. Kept in their cheesecloth, then sealed in polythene and protected by a cardboard disc on each side, tightly taped to prevent disintegration and decorated with a red and blue cross, the Double Gloucester cheeses have been made for over the past twenty years by Diana Smart of Churcham. Mrs Smart is the only remaining person in Gloucestershire who makes Double Gloucester cheese by hand using traditional methods according to Jean Jefferies who has just published a book on Cheese Rolling at Cooper's Hill, after a decade researching old records and talking and photographing the people involved.


It is the origin of the custom that poses the greatest question: theories abound as to how it all started and the most quoted ones are that it is a re-enactment of a pagan ceremony to celebrate the summer solstice - as it was held in midsummer in days of yore - but another feasible reason is that it originated from the local people conforming to some ancient rite to secure their rights to common pasturage. Perhaps what is more important than how it all began is how it has survived the centuries to become so much a part of our treasured folk heritage. The chronicle of the Cheese Rolling is a fascinating record of the people who have organised, rolled and chased and made the famous cheese through the years, but also unfolds some dramatic facts of how they have overcome many difficulties and obstacles to ensure its continuity. Doggedly determined that despite the official cancellation imposed in 1998 for safety reasons the age-old custom would be honoured there was 'an illicit cheese roll on the hill under cover of darkness' as reported in The Daily Telegraph; similar headlines appeared in a number of other national papers, and even made a BBC news item. The closing of public footpaths during the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001, and an earthquake in far-off Algeria which sent medical cover from Rapid UK away from the event to help in the disaster are just two instances which curtailed the programme but, as usual, a token race was run and the tradition upheld to continue to thrill the thousands who will once again enjoy the madcap capers on Cooper's Hill on May Bank Holiday Monday.

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