Strange British traditions: cheese roll and flaming tar barrels

The other day, Wild Thing and I were talking with friends about the Gloucester Cheese Roll. Unlike an egg roll, which in Britain is an egg on a roll and not (as it is in the U.S.) Chinese veggies and sometimes meat or seafood deep-fried inside a wrapper, this is not cheese on a roll but an event where people chase a wheel of cheese down a very steep hill. (The event is also called the Cheese Rolling and the Cheese Race, but let’s stick with the more confusing name, please.)

In Britain, what Americans call an egg roll is called a spring roll. In the U.S., a spring roll is an unfried egg roll and in case you need to know, I like them better. That’s all as irrelevant as it is confusing, which is why I include it.

For endless images not of an egg roll but of the cheese roll follow this link.

Irrelevant photo: Launceston Castle, with a church in the foreground

Irrelevant photo: Launceston Castle, with a church in the foreground

But back to the event: The winner of the race gets to keep the cheese. The ambulances at the bottom get to carry selected losers to the emergency room, which in Britain is called Accident and Emergency.

That business about the ambulances? That’s not a joke.

“Why,” I asked (and you may need to be reminded at this point that I was sitting around with Wild Thing and our friends), “do people do this?”

“Boredom,” D. said.

Both friends, irrelevantly, have names that begin with D.

“Think of it as a Saturday night in February in a small-town Minnesota bar,” Wild Thing said. “A couple of people go outside and punch each other, then they come back inside and everybody keeps drinking.”

I never lived in small-town Minnesota, but Wild Thing did, so I’m going to have to take her word for this. I do understand boredom, but my way of dealing with it doesn’t usually involve hospitals. So I told D. and D. about our village’s earring fishing contest, which is an ordinary enough fishing contest except the contestants have to use an earring as a lure. It’s been running for a few years. I told them about the Boscastle raft race, in which the teams build rafts but can’t use anything nautical. Last year was its first year. My favorite entry lost. In fact, it sank. It was a picnic table on beer kegs, with a parasol that blew off either before the race started or right after. If I remember correctly, the raft was paddled with skateboards. Still, no ambulances were harmed in the making of either the race or the fishing contest (although the contest didn’t amuse the fish particularly), so I have less trouble understanding them.

From what I’ve seen on the internet, the official cheese roll ended a few years ago, when it couldn’t get insurance, and it’s now organized by an informal (and presumably un-suable) group. The mention of insurance reminded D. (well, one of them) of the flaming tar barrel race in Ottery St. Mary, which went on safely for years, even though people were racing around with, yes, flaming tar barrels, until some idiot tossed an aerosol can into one, and the can did what aerosol cans do when exposed to flaming tar: It blew up. No one—as far as I know—was hurt, but I’m willing to bet a lot of people were scared shitless.

The race continues. I don’t know what they do about insurance. Or aerosol cans and idiots.

The events we talked about fall into two categories: new and ancient. Many of the ancient ones seem to reach back to pre-Christian times and then piggyback themselves onto more recent holidays—May Day; Guy Fawkes Day. You can see the echoes of spring fertility celebrations, of the fall equinox. The tar barrel race is in the fall and you get fire, and days growing shorter. It’s insane, but I do see a connection. The cheese roll, though? It’s in the spring and I may be missing something, but it doesn’t strike me as an obvious way to celebrate the earth’s fertility.

What does it say about a culture that it creates these wonderful, lunatic events? I don’t have a clue, but I do know that they’re not commercial inventions, and they’re not the synthetic creations of a bunch of people nostalgic for the good olde days when knights were bolde and old crones knew the use of every weed that grew in the hedges. They’re created by real people, in place after place. Sort of like weeds, since I just mentioned them. No one plants them; they just grow. If you want folk culture, you could do worse than look here. And I can’t help imagining that they all start in the pub. Go back to Wild Thing’s February small-town Minnesota bar. Boredom plus beer. What could be more powerful? But instead of a simple brawl, these are elaborate events that demand months of planning. Commit-tees. Meetings. Ambulances. Delayed gratification, if you like. Which may be a good thing and may not be. If what you really want is the adrenaline of a fight, you probably fall on the not side. You end up starting a war. Or running through the streets with a flaming tar barrel. Or getting someone else to do it while you stand on the sidelines with a starter’s pistol, you clever devil.

In the interests of learning more about my new home, I hope to get to this year’s cheese roll, and to report back. If all goes well, we’ll discuss the tar barrel race. I make no promises.

The cheese roll is in May and I’m keeping my eye on the calendar.

53 thoughts on “Strange British traditions: cheese roll and flaming tar barrels

  1. I’ve never seen one of the cheese roll events in real life, just on TV. And my parents would never take us to see any tar barrel events either. Kill joys. So many places up and down Britain have these peculiar traditions, some obscure and some less so, from new year swimming to Green Man festivals, May Day traditions and – for my Shetland family – Up Helly Aa. I think it’s great for a community to celebrate its folk heritage even if it has not a clue what the event is about.

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    • Thanks for that last line. It made me laugh out loud. I’ve never heard of UP Helly Aa. Shetland’s probably further than I want to go for a festival, however strange or now-un-understood. As for your killjoy parents, they managed to get you to adulthood alive, so they may have had a point.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Up Helly Aa is actually one of the least obscure as it’s a celebration of the islands’ Norse heritage and culture. Lots of dressing up as Vikings, building a longship and then setting fire to it. I would love to see it some time but I’ve unfortunately never been to Shetland and would rather go during the near constant light rather than the near constant dark (Up Helly Aa is January).

        Have you seen Morris Dancing yet? That’s peculiar.

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  2. What? No pictures for the tar barrel race?

    We have a cheese roll in South Africa as well. It’s a regular hamburger roll (or bun) with melted cheese on top. I don’t think one can be injured with a South Africa cheese roll (unless you left it out so it became really, really stale.

    I feel I have to ask whether your friends are into tabletop gaming?

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  3. I think you’ve tripped across one of those universal laws of physics (says the person who has difficulty grasping the most basic concepts of science) …

    Boredom + Beer = Lubrication for Shenanigans

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  4. I love that picture. It presents a metaphor. A physical fortress above, and a mental fortress below, and the mental fortress often tends to be the stronger–often impenetrable.

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    • Well, one’s certainly older. But really, I don’t want to get down on anyone for their religion as long as they don’t get down on anyone for their lack of religion, or for holding to some other religion. Fair’s fair.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember seeing the cheese roll on TV a few years ago. I’ve actually been to Glouchester – my bf was from there, but I do not recall hearing about it. However, as a new-ish vegan, I can no longer support the Cheese Roll. I do support the flaming tar barrel race – would love to see idiots burn, haha.

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    • I didn’t get into this, but apparently in some races (or maybe all of them) they’ve substituted a cheese-looking wheel of plastic for the genuine cheese, on health and safety grounds. If health and safety were the real issue, they’d probably substitute a flat sidewalk for the hill they roll it down, but never mind, no one asked me. So you may be able to go with a clear conscience. Emphasis on may. And that doesn’t take into consideration whether you’d really want to.

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  6. If they’d have had the flaming tar barrel at the same time as the cheese roll, perhaps the heat from the flames would have helped make grilled cheese sandwiches for all the ones who weren’t taken away to emergency. (Of course, I still have to wonder why the “winner” would want a trophy of a dirty cheese!)

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    • What we need is a third contest, maybe the Great British Bakeoff, that would bring the bread.

      I think we have the makings of a great idea here. Tar-flavored sandwiches are no crazier than the races themselves.

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  7. I absolutely love events like this. One of my favorite segments of Sunday Morning on CBS has always been the one where Bill Geist travels around taking part in various crazy events. I live in small town Maine and find endless pleasure in the characters and goings-on around here. In one of our mid coast towns they hold a Pumpkinfest and Regatta. Folks hollow out and decorate giant pumpkins and race them in the harbor. Fantastic! Right?
    The Cheese Roll is definitely on my bucket list of “must see” wacky events around the world.

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    • A pumpkin race is crazy enough to get on the official list of zany events. Minneapolis used to have a milk carton boat race, but I’m not sure what happened to it after milk stopped coming in milk cartons.

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  10. You win the cheese roll by catching the cheese? Or by being the first non-injured person down the hill? There has got to be some sort of alcohol involved – one of the linked pictures has a naked man covered in mud in an area you don’t normally worry about being muddy.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Alcohol? I can’t imagine how you’d get yourself to do it any other way. Getting muddy in areas that aren’t socially approved? Have that extra pint and it probably sounds like a great idea.

      My understanding is that you have to catch the cheese, but I’ll know more at the end of May. Wild Thing and I are planning to go this year. As neutral observers. Nobody’s getting me to run down that hill.

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