Guy Fawkes Night: Who, what, when, where, and why

November 5 is Guy Fawkes Night, when people across most of Britain (we’ll get into the most part eventually) light bonfires and burn a long-dead Catholic plotter in effigy.

The only time I went to a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire, all we burned were some potatoes (and we did’t burn them well enough, if memory serves), but we did at least light a fair-size fire. In other places, they go all out, shooting off fireworks, tossing the effigy into the fire, and (according to what I read) chanting bloodthirsty rhymes. (I’m not really sure if anyone chants it on the spot, but I’ve heard people quote a line or two, so the rhymes do circulate.)

All this dates back to 1605, when a plot to overthrow James I (of England) and VI (of Scotland; same person; same name; it must’ve been confusing for him) failed.

James was the son and successor of Mary Queen of Scots (a Catholic) and the successor of Elizabeth I of England (a Protestant). Elizabeth—being the Virgin Queen and all—had no kids. That’s an occupational hazard of being a virgin queen: Kids are hard to explain. And if you take truth in advertising seriously, they’re even harder to produce. So a successor had to be brought in from another branch of the family, and he had to be a Protestant.

Screamingly irrelevant photo. And what’s worse, I’ve forgotten the name of the thing. It’s a wildflower, and I should know it.

Luckily for Liz, when Mary was de-queenified, James was just thirteen months old. He was crowned in a Protestant church and raised as a Protestant. How he felt about that I don’t know, but I doubt the people in charge cared much. What mattered was what he did, and he didn’t rock the boat.

The powerful weren’t an overly sentimental lot back then. Whether anyone else was, I don’t know.

Why did Liz need a Protestant heir? Because as far as the English Protestants were concerned, Catholics were the boogeyman. The Catholic Church had done what it could to suppress Protestantism, and Protestantism responded by doing the same to Catholicism. No one gets the Nobel Peace Prize for their role in any of this, Although after Henry Kissinger was awarded one, you have to wonder what the prize is worth. And we’re not even going to get into Aung San Suu Kyi’s.

Besides, Alfred Nobel hadn’t been born yet, and I’m not sure peace was even considered a possibility, never mind a goal.

So both sides did their damnedest to stamp out the other religion on whatever soil they controlled, and whichever side was out of power favored freedom of religion. The minute it got power, it used that freedom to stamp out the other religion.

Three cheers for freedom of religion.

Let’s take a break here for a brief (and largely irrelevant) summary of English attitudes toward a couple of non-Christian religions. Grab a cup of tea, okay? Just a small one, because it won’t take long.

Jews had been run out of England in 1290 and weren’t allowed back in until 1656. They were probably still the boogeyman of popular and churchly imagination, but in the absence of any actual Jews that was sort of a sideshow. I don’t expect they generated a lot of passion.

In contrast, after the Pope excommunicated her in 1570, Elizabeth was free to send diplomats and merchants to the Muslim world and to invite Muslims to England, and she took full advantage of that freedom. (The Catholic Church forbid any contact.) Chalk up a win for the law of unintended consequences. According to the BBC, “From as far away as North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia, Muslims from various walks of life found themselves in London in the 16th Century working as diplomats, merchants, translators, musicians, servants and even prostitutes.” It’s an interesting story but this isn’t the place to get into it. Hold onto that for another post and I’ll see what more I can find out.

Finished with your tea? Good. Let’s go back to Christians fighting each other.

In suppressing whichever religion was out of power, torture was a powerful tool–at least as much to spread fear than to extract information. In fact, fear may have been the more important of the two. Burning people was another important tool. Holding to the wrong religion in the wrong place was a dangerous business. Most people switched allegiances as needed and kept their misgivings to themselves, but not everyone did or could or would. They genuinely believed they’d suffer an eternity in hell if they didn’t do what their religion demanded. So some people took the dangerous route of holding on to their beliefs publicly, while others kept them private—or tried to. That wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Catholics needed priests if they were to follow their religion, and some of the great houses in Britain still have priest holes—hiding places, usually very small, where a visiting priest could be concealed from the priest hunters who scoured the country. If a priest so much as entered England, it was high treason (see below for the explanation of how much fun it was to be drawn and quartered).

After Elizabeth died, English Catholics—or at least some of them—hoped James would introduce a more tolerant climate, allowing them to practice their religion openly, and when he didn’t thirteen of them plotted to blow him up when he opened the next session of Parliament.

What could possibly be more fun? Well, you could toss some potatoes on the fire.

They stashed 36 barrels of gunpowder in the basement of the House of Lords and waited for their moment. They were hoping the explosion would lead to a Catholic uprising. But somebody wrote to the fourth Baron Monteagle, telling him to stay away from the opening of Parliament on November 5. The somebody was probably Monteagle’s brother-in-law, who was one of the plotters. On top of that, the government’s spy network was already sniffing after the plotters. So word got out and when the basement was searched, there sat Guy Fawkes, bored silly and wondering why the i-phone hadn’t been invented yet. In its absence, he had nothing to do than worry about being discovered while he waited for the right moment to touch a match to the fuse.

Or whatever they used instead of a match back then. A Zippo lighter. Or a flint and a bit of steel. We’re not big on historical accuracy this week. One of the sources I read actually did say “a match,” but the great Googlemeister tells me “self-igniting matches” were invented in 1805. This was 1605, so our dates are off a bit, even if they do have a nice symetry.

And what’s a non-self-igniting match anyway?

Guy was caught and tortured but managed to throw himself off the ladder he had to climb in order to be hung, which allowed him to die before he could also be cut down, drawn, and quartered. The goal of hanging, drawing, and quartering is to keep the person alive while it all happens, inflicting the maximum amount of pain and horror.

But for the people who weren’t about to be hung, drawn, and quartered–at least those among ’em who did’t want the Catholics back in power–Guy getting caught was endless fun, so they lit bonfires and generally whooped it up.

In fairness, I can see where Protestants would’ve been relieved not to be back under Catholic rule. I can also see why Catholics wanted to be out from under Protestant rule. The brutality of both sides was a perfect justification for the brutality on both sides, and there’s a lesson for us today in there somewhere.

In response to the plot, the laws against Catholics were tightened. As was the law of unintended consequences.

According to one theory, the gunpowder that the plotters used wouldn’t have blown up Parliament anyway—it had passed its sell-by date. According to another theory, it was enough to blow up everything within 500 meters. Take your pick, because Guy never got to light that match and we can’t know for sure.

The cellars where Guy and his match and his gunpowder hid are still searched in advance of the Queen’s Speech at the opening of Parliament each year. Just in case. Even though the cellars no longer exist. Even though gunpowder wouldn’t be anyone’s weapon of choice anymore. Yes, kiddies, that’s the way things work here in Britain. We don’t care that the cellars were wiped out in a nineteenth-century reconstruction of the building. We’ll search those suckers anyway, because—. Well, as they used to say on 75th Street, where I grew up, just because.

Everyone but me considered that a good enough explanation. For anything. So it’s not just England that works that way.

In Northern Ireland, the various shades of Christianity are still highly charged, so anyone who celebrates Guy Fawkes Day there is (a) Protestant and (b) knowingly getting up the nose of Catholics.

Elsewhere, as far as I can tell, the night’s just an excuse to light fires and shoot off fireworks, but I know how easy it is for a majority group to say, “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything anymore. It’s all just a good time,” while cluelessly offending the hell out of a minority, so I asked a Catholic friend about her experience.

She’d never given it a moment’s thought before I asked, she said. She went to Catholic school, and neither her school or her church ever took a stand against Guy Fawkes Night. By way of contrast, her kids’ Catholic primary school wasn’t shy about telling the students that Halloween had satanic overtones. So if the church had an opinion of the event, we can assume they wouldn’t have been shy about saying so.

When she was young, she and her friends used to sit on the street (this was in London) with a guy–basically a scarecrow made of old clothes and whatever the kids could get their hands on–and ask passersby for “a penny for the guy.” They’d buy fireworks with whatever they collected. And the bloodthirsty rhyme? She remembers it as part of an ad for fireworks.

I don’t know how typical she is of British (or English) Catholics. If anyone else wants to weigh in here, I’m interested.

Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated in Scotland and Wales as well as in England and Cornwall, and I’m not sure what it means to people there, since both places have a conflicted history with England (she said in a masterpiece of understatement). Again, if you’re from there, or from Northern Ireland, I’d love to hear what you have to say.

Great British traditions: the queen’s tweeter and runners in fancy dress

Madge, as my friend R. calls her royal Madge-esty, was recently looking for someone to handle her Twitter account.

You didn’t think the queen would do her own tweeting, did you? Those royal fingers have to be protected so she can cut ribbons.

If you check @britishmonarchy, as I just forced myself to do, you’ll find that the official MonarTweeter doesn’t try to impersonate the queen, because that would get into a whole tangle of decisions about whether to have her say I or one, as in “One has finished one’s breakfast and is off to a busy day of cutting ribbons.” Which might be too long for a tweet but I can’t be bothered counting. And more to the point, it would quite probably violate some law about impersonating a monarch. But anyway, the job of the MonarTweeter is to speak on her behalf.

I’d quote a few tweets but they’re really, really boring.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: Ruin in the Firth of Forth, by Ida Swearingen. Don't you just love saying "Firth of Forth"?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: An island in the Firth of Forth. Don’t you just love saying “Firth of Forth”? Photo by Ida Swearingen.

The same person will also be—or by now quite possibly is—in charge of her Facebook page and her YouTube channel, which are probably just as fascinating as the Twitter account. And will get paid between £45,000 and £50,000 per year. One of the requirements of the job is that you have to stay awake through all the dreary stuff you try to graft some excitement onto. And you not only have to keep a straight face about it all, you may even have to look reverent. Or at least preserve some small pocket of reverence deep inside.

I apologize for how slow I’ve been in getting this onto the blog. I know you’d have loved to apply. For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t have recommended using me as a reference. They wanted to hire someone who could “liaise with a broad spectrum of stakeholders” and I foam at the mouth when I’m around people who think stakeholder is a part of actual human speech. (As I type that I can’t help picturing a scene from a vampire movie. I’m the person holding the stake. Did you bring the hammer?)

And as long as we’re on the topic of British traditions, I can’t leave you without talking about the—. Umm. Is this a tradition? A habit? A thing?

Yes. The British thing about running races in costume—or fancy dress, as they call it here. A recent news article—.

Or, well, no. This isn’t really news. It’s the filler newspapers run to keep their readers from going suicidal over the real news. And it seems to work, because I’ve noticed lately that I’m still alive.

We all need stuff like this, and lately we need a lot of it.

So here, if you’ll be so kind as to follow the link, we have photos of people who’ve run races dressed as the Gingerbread Man, a dinosaur, a lobster, and Spiderman. Tragically, the print edition’s picture of a man dressed as a water faucet (or in British, a water tap) is missing from the online edition. But weep not, because by way of compensation you can follow this link and see a runner dressed as—or more accurately, in—a telephone booth, another one carrying a refrigerator, and some others dressed as a hippo, a telephone, and a large bird, possibly a parrot but I’m no expert. And yet another wearing a cardboard fig(I think)leaf and a bad wig. And not much else.

I don’t know what the temperature was when that last one was taken, but this country doesn’t over-indulge in warm weather. Let’s hope the running warmed him up.

Don’t you just love how ancient tradition survives in this modern world?

Great British traditions: the Atherstone ball game

The 817th Atherstone ball game was held last Shrove Tuesday. That’s Pancake Day, or the day before Lent starts. If you need more information on the significance of the date, your friendly local Jewish atheist is here to provide it, so do ask. The game runs for two hours and the winner is the person holding the ball when it ends.

Most of the sources I’ve checked agree that there’s only one rule, but they disagree about what it is. One says the only rule is that there are no rules, then it says the only rule is that the ball can’t be taken out of town. Which violates my sense of what no rules means, but hey, I’m a foreigner here, so what do I know? Maybe no is one of those words our two countries use differently.

And not to quibble or anything, but if the only rule is that there are no rules except for the one about not taking the ball out of town, isn’t that two rules? Rule 1. there are no rules. Rule 2. don’t take the ball out of town. Does that mean we use only differently as well?

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses. It's spring. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Screamingly irrelevant photo: primroses. It’s spring. Photo by Ida Swearingen

Another source says the only rule is that the players aren’t allowed to kill each other. That does seem sensible, but I suspect it’s not organic to the game and that the police are just being spoilsports. The town council backs my first source—the one that says the only rule is that the ball can’t be taken out of town—which supports my theory.

Yet another source, having repeated that there are no rules, says that the ball’s decorated with ribbons that can be exchanged for money by the people who snatch them. Sounds like a rule to me, folks, but maybe I have an expansive idea of what rule means. It also says the ball can be deflated or hidden after 4:30. (The game ends at 5). That also sounds like a rule. And it sounds like a hard trick to pull off. Getting the ball far enough away from the crowd so you can do anything other than fight for your life? Not likely.

The town prepares for the game by boarding up the shop windows and diverting traffic. I’d recommend locking up the guns and knives myself, but again, I’m a foreigner, and an American at that. You’d want to keep that in mind if you consider my advice seriously.

This is not a game for small people. In any number of the pictures I’ve seen, at least one person, and it’s never anybody my size, has somehow landed on top of the crowd and someone else is looking panicked, is on the ground, or is grabbing someone else, either to keep from getting trampled or to pull them down so they can be trampled. Or all of the above. And in one an elderly person is standing serenely in the middle of all this as if he (or possibly she–it’s a small photo and I’m not 600% sure) were alone on the cliffs and looking out to sea, while the man beside him or her is having his head shoved and his hat knocked off.

You gotta love this country.

I could give you a dozen links, but let’s limit it to one, a clip from BBC Midlands.

“Isn’t it a bit dangerous?” the BBC interviewer asks I have no idea who.

“Not really,” I have no idea who answers and goes on to back that up with a couple of totally irrelevant statements. So, right, not dangerous at all, but I won’t be taking my short, not-young self into the middle of the melee next year, thanks.

If you have nothing better to do (and if you’ve read this far I’m going to have to assume that you don’t), you can find all the photos you want by googling Atherstone ball game, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. Oh, hell, here, I’ll do it for you.

The Soulbury Stone: ancient tradition meets four-wheel drive

The British are proud of their traditions, even when they haven’t a clue where they came from or what (if anything) they commemorate. It’s one of the things I love about the country—that mix of deep history and complete insanity. For today’s example, students, turn your textbook to page—. Sorry, I’m dating myself. Click your magic tablets to (and you can take your pick here): the Guardian, the BBC, or the Leighton Buzzard Observer, which doesn’t necessarily have the best article but does have the best name. Don’t you wish you wrote for the Leighton Buzzard?

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

Irrelevant photo: Davidstow Moor.

It seems that at some dim point in history, the village of Soulbury built its main road around a stone. A big ol’ stone—the kind of stone that defeated two tanks during World War II, when someone decided that the only way to beat Hitler was to get that stone out of the middle of the road. Hitler did eventually lose the war, but the tanks lost the battle. Local wisdom says that the Soulbury Stone always wins.

But let me backtrack. When I said they build the road around it, I don’t mean that they detoured around it. I mean that the thing’s sticking up right in the middle of the road. Judging from the photos, it’s the height of an average person’s thigh. You’ll notice I avoided saying where it would come up to on the imaginary person’s thigh. A thigh’s a longish bit of anatomy. So this is a rough estimate but close enough to let you understand that the stone’s not the sort of thing your average village leaves in the middle of the road. Or that your average driver looks at and thinks, I don’t need to detour around that.

At one point, a lamppost stood beside it, but that’s gone now—maybe the tanks got it—so it’s just the stone these days, sticking out of the pavement all on its own.

I should stop here and tell you a bit about Soulbury. The population, according to Wikipedia, is 736. In 1891, it was 510, so yes, it’s been growing madly. Most references to it are on genealogical sites and its main claim to fame seems to be the stone. Once I ran through nine or ten entries about either the stone or somebody else’s ancestors, I was suddenly looking at listings about Sri Lanka and Tamil separatism. I should probably have followed the links to see if there really was some connection but I preferred to think it was a random collision of electronic bitzies.

Don’t you just love Google?

What brought the stone to national attention was an incident—or an alleged incident—involving a four-by-four and the Immovable Object, after which the county council decided the stone was an obstruction and needed to be removed.

Mind you, they weren’t going to crush it to smithereens. They understand the power of village tradition. All they were proposing was to move it to the village green. To which the village said, reasonably enough, “Obstruction? Whaddaya mean obstruction?”

Sorry, wrong accent. I can’t  help myself.

One resident threatened to chain himself to it, although it you look at the pictures you’ll be hard pressed to figure out how. My friends, I’ve done civil disobedience. Never in that particular form, but I think I’m safe in saying that a roundish stone isn’t something you can chain yourself to.

A move is afoot to have it declared an ancient monument, not because anybody’s Neolithic ancestor erected it—it was left there by a glacier— but because it would protect the stone. And, well, just because, as the kids used to say where I grew up when they had to explain something that couldn’t be explained, which usually meant some rule that originated with the grownups.

According the the Guardian article, “Even local people can’t quite put a finger on why they value [the stone] so highly. Debbie Olié, who lives at the bottom of Chapel Hill, appreciates that it’s a handy way to direct people looking for her turnoff. Jacqui Butler, who lives in the large, early-18th century house in front of the stone, says her teenage son likes to stand on it every Thursday evening waiting for the fish and chip van. Janet Joosten, who lives a few doors along the main road and is a member of a druid society, believes the stone has ‘particular energies’.

“Some people think it was a mounting block for horses. There is a legend that Oliver Cromwell stood on top of it while his troops were ransacking the village church (though villagers are happy to admit the sourcing on that may be sketchy). Some cite a legend that the stone rolls down the low hill every night at midnight only to reappear each morning, though sceptics scoff at such superstition and say it only happens every Halloween.”

Right.

Local belief also holds that only an eighth of the stone is visible aboveground. If that’s true (and how would anyone know?), it would explain why no one moved it a few hundred, or thousand, years ago, before anyone got sentimental about the thing.

In the name of safety, the stone is now surrounded by orange traffic cones. Last I heard, the fight was still going on.

And people thought I was making things up on April Fool’s Day. With a country like this, who needs April Fool’s Day?

Tea on the lawn: what could be more English?

Is anything more English than tea on the lawn of a great house? We’ve were talking about stereotypes since I fell for an inaccurate one about Americans, but linking tea on the lawn—especially the lawn of a great house—to Englishness seems like a safer gamble. (Feel free to take me apart on that if I’m wrong.)

Cream tea at Penhele

Cream tea at Penhele

Recently, Wild Thing and I went to a cream tea at Penhele, a great house not from where we live. It was a fundraiser for the Charles Causley Trust, which (I just checked the website) keeps alive the memory of a local poet and promotes writing in the region where he lived. I’d love to give you a link to some of his poems, but although I’ve been impressed by some of his poetry I didn’t like the only one I found online. Others are under copyright and that makes them a no-go zone. Sorry.

But we didn’t go there to support the Causley Trust. In fact, we didn’t know what the event was raising money for. We didn’t even go for the cream tea, although it was a welcome bonus. What we really wanted was to see the gardens and the house, which are well enough known around here that we ran into half the village almost as soon as we walked in. One of them, J., was a carpenter before he retired (only they say joiner here, or builder, and I’m not all that sure what the difference is) and worked restoring historic buildings. Basically, once he’s done you can’t tell he’s been there. I asked if he knew how old the house was and he pointed to a stone plaque above a doorway in what he told me was the hall. It carried a date in the 1600s—1660, if I remember right. For all I know, other parts are older.

“I worked on those windows,” he said, pointing to the right of the plaque.

I felt like I was sitting next to a rock star.

Most of us—maybe all of us—lined up to buy tea and either scones with jam and clotted

Walking by the lake.

Walking by the lake. Photo by Ida Swearingen

cream (that’s the cream part of a cream tea) or cake, then we drifted along paths and past fields, a lake, a swimming pool (covered), in and out of a series of open rooms formed by a high, dense hedge, and past an empty flowerpot stuck deep into the hedge and looking like a place for someone to hide his or her cigarettes, although I didn’t reach in to be sure since that seemed like an invasion. We paid closest attention to what I’ve learned to call a herbaceous border (you pronounce the H on herb here; I still don’t, but I’ve gotten to the point where both pronunciations sound odd to me), stopping to admire this flower and that one.

penhele 055

Part of the herbaceous border

According to Wikipedia, herbaceous borders became popular in the Victorian era. They’re basically a bunch of flowering plants—what I’d call a flower bed—and they’re gorgeous but take a lot of work. The Wikipedia entry talks about digging up and splitting and replacing plants, but even more than that they take weeding. Endless weeding.

Did I happen to mention how many weeds Wild Thing and I have grown since I started blogging?

I haven't a clue what the flowers are, so I'm not going to try identifying them.

I haven’t a clue what the flowers are, so I can’t identify them.

I overheard several people saying the same thing that came to my mind: “I wonder how many people it takes to keep it looking like this.” No one had the answer, but quite a few seemed like a fair guess.

It all felt a bit like something out of a BBC costume drama—the great house opened for an afternoon so the villagers could put on their company manners and enjoy a day out. It’s less lord-and-lady-of-the-manor these days, but you can’t help noticing the difference between the place you’re admiring and whatever you call home. Still, whatever people’s feelings were about class and inequality—and I expect they ranged all over the scale—everybody seemed willing to put that aside for the day and enjoy the beauty and the hospitality.

Both class and people’s feelings about class are more open in the U.K. than in the U.S., penhele 061where we break out in a rash if anyone uses the word in any context except middle. And the tradition of a grand house opening its gardens to the public is also something I never heard of in the U.S. Wild Thing and I speculated on whether it dates back to Victorian times or to the medieval period. I’d put my money on medieval, because, as crushing as the lord-peasant relationship must have been, it did lay a few obligations on the lord, and those may have included fetes or feasts.

The inescapable raffle

The inescapable raffle

But that’s guesswork. What’s certain (or as certain as I dare be about anything right now) is that the tradition of great houses opening their grounds for fundraisers is part of an English summer.

At the end of the afternoon came the drawing for the raffle. You can’t hold a fundraiser in Cornwall without holding a raffle. There’s no law on the books, but it’s just not done. So at Penhele they held a raffle. And we didn’t win anything.

Bizarre British festivals: Gloucester cheese rolling

What I won’t do in the interests of researching British culture.

Wild Thing and I just got back from the Gloucester Cheese Rolling and I hardly know what to say, except that humans are a very strange species. The Cheese Rolling works like this: The contestants line up at the top of an insanely steep hill. Someone starts a wheel of Gloucester cheese rolling down the hill. Then the contestants run after it. The first one to the finish line wins the cheese.

Runners sliding down the hill. The camera’s at an angle and doesn’t do justice to how steep the hill is, but keep scrolling down.

Sounds simple. Did I mention that the hill is steep? Steep enough that before the race started I told Wild Thing I was going to see what was happening at the top. I got maybe ten yards uphill and thought, No I’m not. I was tipped forward, almost on all fours, and my feet were sliding backward. It would have been easier if I’d had a walking stick or two. Or possibly three. Cleats would have helped. So would a tow rope. But with anything short of a tank, it would’ve been a helll of a climb. And then I was going to have to turn around and come down, which is harder. So forget curiosity. Forget pride. I gave up and wedged myself back in where I started out.

Wedged because unless you find a bit of bumpy ground to keep you in place or dig your heels in and put those thigh muscles to work, you slide downhill onto the people below you. You’re not sitting so much as clinging. That’s the hill they’re running down.

Not many of the runners stay upright. They skid, they cartwheel, and they get hurt—or some of them do. At the bottom, the local rugby team lines up to catch them, otherwise they’d keep going until they reached the Severn, or possibly the Atlantic. If that happens to be the direction they’re running in, which I couldn’t swear to but I think it was and it does sound romantic that way. What I can swear to is that they build up some serious speed. As does the cheese, which someone near us claimed hits 70 mph by the time it gets to the bottom, which happens well before the runners get there.

Helping an injured runner off the hill. Notice how the helpers are struggling to stay upright.

Helping an injured runner off the hill. Notice how the helpers are struggling to stay upright.

I didn’t see the rugby team stop all the runners. I was focused on the people who were struggling downhill, but I did see a few tackled to the ground. Others were blocked, or caught and hugged. Maybe it depended on their size and how fast they were going, or maybe a full-on tackle was a favor saved for friends. A few runners dodged off to the side, and given the heft of those guys I might’ve done the same.

Not that you’ll find me chasing a cheese down a hill. I say, if your cheese goes free-range, let it go.

A runner looks a hesitant about getting caught by the rugby team.

A runner looks a hesitant about getting caught by the rugby team.

One of the strange things about the cheese roll is that as a nation Britain takes health and safety seriously. I was once told in a second-hand store where the clerk said she couldn’t sell me a crochet hook because of health and safety. But before you start muttering about government regulation and the nanny state, consider the cheese roll. It goes on. Because it always has. Because no one’s thought to pass a law banning people from chasing cheese down a hill.

The crochet hook business had nothing to do with government regulation, by the way; it was just someone being a pill.

A few years ago, the group that organized the cheese roll couldn’t get insurance coverage. Tell me you’re surprised. This is where the real health and safety problem comes in. A tradition was about to die, but the community refused to let it and the races were held anyway, with no official organization (at least as far as I understand) and no insurance. If you get hurt, you’re on you’re own, because there’s no one to sue.

The local police hate the cheese roll. Maybe because of the crowds and the traffic and the injuries, or maybe because it’s basically insane, but they haven’t been able to stop it. They close off the nearest highway and people park outside the exclusion zone and walk past them to get there. It must drive them nuts.

We hiked in and ended up sitting next to the partner and son of a local legend who had won, if I remember right, six times in the past. He went home this year with two cheeses. What did they do with all the cheese? I asked her. The first year, he gave a lot to family and friends. After that—and here there was a pause.

“I have a lot in my refrigerator,” she said.

There are several races every year, she said. How many depends on how many cheeses they have.

Well, of course.

Sometimes they don’t have enough cheeses to satisfy the runners, so an extra race pours downhill anyway.

A first-time runner was standing near us, and after his race I asked how it had been.

“Fast,” he said, “and exhilarating. And terrifying.”

One of the races is for kids, but they go uphill, shepherded by the rugby team catchers and a few adult runners. It’s safer going up. Of course, then they have to come back down to rejoin their families, and inevitably some of them run. And some of them scoot down on their butts. And some of them are terrified. The adult shepherds were very sweet about coming down with them. A rugby player scooted on his butt alongside one kid. Another led one by the hand. The last kid off the hill got a round of applause.

The kids' race.

The kids’ race.

This being England, a few adult runners showed up in costumes—what’s called fancy dress here. One guy came to a halt near us, stopped to make sure someone who’d fallen was okay, then pulled on a mouse’s head and finished the race in it. Another was dressed as a banana in a top hat. Well of course he was. Other costumes I saw were a kilt, a cape, and a tutu combined with a Canadian flag tee shirt.

According to an awkwardly worded Wikipedia entry, “Two possible origins have been proposed for the ceremony. The first is said that it evolved from a requirement for maintaining grazing rights on the common.

“The second proposal is pagan origins for the custom of rolling objects down the hill. It is thought that bundles of burning brushwood were rolled down the hill to represent the birth of the New Year after winter. Connected with this belief is the traditional scattering of buns, biscuits and sweets at the top of the hill by the Master of Ceremonies. This is said to be a fertility rite to encourage the fruits of harvest.

“Since the fifteenth century, the cheese has been rolled down the hill, and people have competed to catch it.”

As is usual with these things, no one knows for certain. One woman from the area thought the race’s history was measured in decades, not hundreds of years. All I know for a fact is that the country’s full of traditional festivals, and some of them are stranger than this one. I hope to get to one of them later in the year.

If you want to know more about the cheese race, here’s a link to an article from a local paper, one to the official site, and one to cheese race pictures.