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Cheese Rolling

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Photos by: Andrew Kukuljan

Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling

By: © Kirsty Henderson 2014

I never expected to spend my May Bank Holiday weekend as a participant in one of Europe's wackiest and most dangerous events, but there I was, perched atop a huge, steep, bumpy hill in Gloucestershire as an entrant in the third race of the day, about to throw myself down after a piece of rolling cheese.

The Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling Festival is held every year on the second May Bank Holiday and has been going for over 100 years. As ridiculous as it may sound, a piece of cheese is hurled down a very steep hill by a master of ceremonies as thousands look on. While many people expect to run in the race, most change their minds once they see the hill. If they're still keen, many more will back out after witnessing the competitors in the first race fall head over heel down the hill to be carried off by one of the many paramedics waiting at the bottom.

The event was actually cancelled for the first time in 2003 because the St. John's Ambulance team who were to attend for insurance reasons were unable to due to earthquakes in Angola and Peru around the same time. The same people providing emergency services in major catastrophes around the world were to be stationed at the bottom of Cooper's Hill to cart away the injured. This should give a bit of an indication of what you're in for!

At the beginning of the day as I waited for the 7am bus to pick us up, I had very little intention of running in the event. I had looked on the internet and seen some photos of the hill and, as I'm not an adreneline junkie or a crazy person, I was content to sit on the sidelines. Our ride up was organised by a friend who'd hired a few buses and turned them into mobile drinking competitions and after a few ciders things were beginning to change and I was starting to feel a lot braver.

Upon arrival we hitched a ride on the back of someone's pickup truck to the end of the road. We hadn't been able to see the hill yet from the road, but as we jumped off the truck, there it was rising high above us! People has lined the sides of the hill and there was a bit of a viewing area at the bottom as well. I began the difficult climb to the top, almost positive that if I were to lose my footing, I'd tumble to certain death.

After a lot of trouble and nettle stings, I found myself at the top looking down. Eventually I found my friends and settled into a good spot to watch the first few races, as the ladies race was third and not for an hour or two. Every now and then someone would run down the hill unofficially, but we had to wait about 40 minutes for the real action to begin.

After a lot of anticipation and patience, the first racers were perched on the top of the hill with the master of ceremonies in his top hat and white coat ready to release the cheese. The race begins with him declaring 'One, ... two, ... three, ... and four...' before releasing the 7 pound cheese wheel and allowing the competitors to throw themselves foolishly down the hill. I didn't expect there to be such carnage! Bodies were flying everywhere, head first, sideways, rolling uncontrollably! Some were taking things slower but those that wanted to win were really taking their life into their hands! The first race resulted in a few minor injuries and a few people were carted off by ambulance.

Children aren't allowed to race, but every now and then, boys would run down between races in protest. There are a few uphill races, one for boys under 12 and one for girls. These were quite slow going, but entertaining as well!

A bit later on it was time for the lady's race. I had handed off my backpack and sunglasses and made my way back to the top of the hill to be joined by my fellow racers. I was shocked to see that there were only six of us in total, three from my booze bus which was probably no coincidence! I found myself sitting next to a fellow Canadian and we promptly busted into a noisy rendition of O'Canada and then attempted to start the wave to no avail.

We all decided that the best strategy for getting to the bottom alive was a slow descent on our bums. That was my plan... there would be no running or jumping of any kind - not on purpose anyways! The cheese was soon released and we slid and rolled our way after it. Within about 2 seconds I had injured my wrist and was eating everyone else's dust as I struggled to get down without further injury. The adreneline rush was swapped with survival instincts and I slowed down to a wimpy crawl and was left on the hill all on my own while the rest celebrated at the bottom. I'm not sure if the crowd were cheering me on or yelling at me to hurry the hell up, but I was soon saved as the winner of the race came back up the hill to my rescue and helped me down.

I have to say that entering this event was probably one of the dumber things I've ever done in my life, but the sprained wrist I suffered in the process was worth it! The nurses in the medical tent were really nice and the locals I got chatting to were as well. It was without a doubt a great way to spend a sunny day in May! I won't be in any rush to do it again, but I won't soon forget Cooper's Hill and I'm glad I did it!

Cheese Rolling in Gloucestershire

By: © Paul Dodson 2014

When you think of cheese, do you visualize a stringy piece of mozzarella stretching from your lips to a freshly baked slice of pizza. Perhaps you picture a big fat block of Stilton, some water crackers and a bottle of your favourite red. Or maybe, just maybe you see yourself rolling headlong down 300 yards of Gloucestershire countryside in pursuit of a seven lb. chunk of Gloucester's finest. If you find yourself falling into the last category, read on.

Cheese rolling's origins are hazy to say the least. A common presumption is that the masochistic frolic began as a pagan festival hundreds of years ago - a celebration of the onset of summer. Other theories have it relating to age-old fertility rights, the hope of a successful harvest and even as a safeguard of the Commoner's rights for the people of Cooper's Hill.

Wherever it's origins it's hard to argue that cheese rolling is a sport for the outrageously courageous or at least the dangerously demented. Contestants in the Cooper's Hill event (between Gloucester, Stroud and Cheltenham in the Cotswolds) on the last Monday in May, stand precipitously at the top of a 300 yard hill, that maintains a gradient of two in one for the most part whilst a Master of Ceremonies counts them down.

'One to be ready
Two to be steady
Three to prepare', at which time an invited guest launches the chunk of cheese on its downward pilgrimage, then
'Four to be off.'

What follows can only be described as dairy based carnage. Broken bones are a given and sprains and bruises are numerous, as up to twenty contestants in any given race tumble and roll their way headlong down the slope in pursuit of the elusive chunk of Double Gloucester. Keeping your feet is rarely an option, contestants just seem to go with the flow, tumbling out of control like rag dolls with a death wish. Inevitably the cheese wins.

Four races are held on the day, including an event for the ladies. Of the 50 odd contestants - and I do mean odd - 18 injuries were reported from last years event. Not great odds in anyone's books. And casualties are not limited to contestants. At least one of the estimated 4,000 strong crowd was treated for head injuries after tumbling 30 yards down the course whilst attempting to evade a wayward clump of cheese.

Oh, and the prize for winning, you get to keep the cheese. Food for thought that.

Cheese Rolling Video

Possibly the strangest pagan frolic ever to grace your monitor. High-in-calcium craziness as contestants chase a chunk of cheese down a riduculous slope. Check out this vid of cheese rolling from the Coopers Hill Cheese Roll in Gloucestershire, England's home of silly.

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