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.