Tilting lunatics, reckless idiocy and Gloucestershire cheese-rolling

PUBLISHED: 10:46 27 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:06 20 February 2013

Tilting lunatics, reckless idiocy and Gloucestershire cheese-rolling

Tilting lunatics, reckless idiocy and Gloucestershire cheese-rolling

Adam Edwards proves a dissenting voice amongst those who mourn the loss of this year's cheese-rolling event.

Some years before the late John Jermyn, Seventh Marquis of Bristol, shuffled prematurely from this mortal coil at the sprightly age of 44, I was - if youll excuse the swank - asked to a house party at his palladium country home at Ickworth, near Bury St Edmonds.

What I wondered should I give this debauched, somewhat eccentric multi-millionaire aristocrat as a house present? I chose, rather amusingly I thought, a whole Stilton cheese from a fancy grocer in Londons Jermyn Street.

The following day I noticed the Marquis and a cluster of his moneyed friends armed with 12-bore shotguns and firing at a round of cheese that was rolling down the hill of the Ickworth parkland towards the ornamental lake. I was later informed that my Stilton had been `killed in action and would not be gracing the weekend table.

I was reminded of this story when I read the news that the Coopers Hill cheese-rolling, which was due to take place on the Bank Holiday at the end of this month, had been cancelled.

The cancellation is not as one might think because of danger to the participants that chase the 8lb wheel of Double Gloucester down the grassy precipice near Brockworth. Nobody much cares about the health and safety of the tilting lunatics despite the fact that 10 years ago 33 of them were treated for a variety of injuries from splinters to broken bones and one year an out of control cheese took out `an innocent bystander.

In fact many admire the buffoons who tumble down the hill reckless idiocy is the coinage of young men. (If a Martian anthropologist was watching he would probably produce a piece of cod research claiming it was a West Country bumpkins courtship ritual.) And the runners hazardous behaviour is not the reason for the end of the show. Rather it is because the organisers claim that too many people are turning up to watch the madmen. Last year, for example, more than 15,000 people tried to attend the event and spent most of the day in a traffic jam watching the car in front not rolling.

'Its a matter of trying to find some way of reducing the numbers attending, said Richard Jefferies, one of the organisers who talk about the sport as if it is on a par with the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

`It is an event that is watched and talked about worldwide, he says. But I dont believe him. While there is a short film on YouTube featuring the cheese-rolling, I have never heard anyone outside the county - let alone outside the country - mention it. For unlike cricket or rugby or racing for that matter, where an element of rivalry makes the sport watchable, once you have seen one group of Coopers Hill lemmings come a cropper you have had the total experience.

Nobody has any idea when or why the `sport began, although the Official Cheese-Rolling Fan Club claims the chase is `steeped in a tradition going back thousands of years into pre-history. My own view is that since Double Gloucester cheese has, according to all known local records, only been around since the 16th century and that it was not until well into the 1700s that it became popular, it was probably sometime during the 18th century that a couple of hayseeds accidentally dropped a round of the curdled milk at Brockworth, ran after it following it down the hill faster than their legs could carry them, and then fell about laughing. It was much like the scenes we see every week on Youve Been Framed.

It was so hilarious that, in an age when there was no mass entertainment, the story made everyone chuckle. And so the yokels thought they would try it again and again. And soon it became an annual event for those taking part, watched by families and friends.

But when did it become a sport for those not connected to the lads who endanger themselves? When did thousands of onlookers suddenly decide that watching strangers running down a hill was total entertainment? And when did the media, the tourist industry and the local worthies start talking about it as an important part of our local heritage?

It is the sort of event that tourist chiefs like to boast about and local television news presenters chuckle at indulgently in the `And Finally slot, implying that we British are all `a little bit crazy (which is like saying `Im mad, me). But in truth there is not much heritage in queuing to watch small gangs of loonies deliberately falling down a hill ostensibly in a chase for a cheese. In the end it is about as interesting as watching a blue-blooded Marquis firing a shotgun at a Stilton. Both are more amusing remembered than they are repeated.

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