No one’s sure how it began, but the annual Cheese Rolling Festival welcomes all-comers in a dangerous and bizarre contest. Words: Sarah Warwick
“One to be ready … two to be steady … three to prepare … and four to be off!” cries the Master of Cheese Rolling Ceremonies. This is the countdown that heralds the start of the Cheese Rolling Festival, arguably the most dangerous and silly event in the English country calendar.
Every year hundreds of people gather at the top of one of the steepest hills in England ready to throw themselves down it as fast as they can and, almost without exception, lose their footing and fall, roll and bounce their way at speed to the bottom. It’s a real extreme sport, an event where contestants and observers alike stand a real chance of doing themselves lasting damage. And why do they do this? To try and win cheese. Yes, cheese.
The festival, which takes place each year on May Day bank holiday Monday at Cooper’s Hill, Gloucestershire, draws a motley international crowd who come to do battle with the hill. They race in pursuit of an eight-pound double Gloucester cheese, which is thrown from the top. The winner is the first to join it at the bottom, however they get there.
Even though no one knows for sure how it started, there are several theories put forward by the locals. One tells me that it commemorates the Romans, who used to have an encampment on top of the hill and would roll the heads of their victims down it. Another tells me that it’s a festival that tries to ensure a good harvest, where the cheese represents the plenty of the village.
As we make our way through the Cotswolds, our tour leader and two-time ladies champion, Dione Carter, warns us about the perils of running. She starts by using the phrase “very, very dangerous”, and ends with an official company disclaimer regarding personal safety. There’s mention of potholes, broken legs and a girl who spent six weeks in hospital the year before with a fractured vertebra. It’s soon clear this is one race I’m not going to be running.
This feeling is not universal, though. As we head off through the woods to the hill’s top, I fall in beside Paul, a 31-year-old from Melbourne who claims to have been preparing for this race since he was about five years old. “I have wanted to do this for my entire life!” he says excitedly. “I’ve watched it every year since I was little on Wild Ride Sports and swore I’d do it one day.”
Kylie, another Aussie, is running after flying in from Oz only 18 hours before, while 21-year-old Karina says she just has to have a go despite the fact her mates think she’s mad. “It does sound a bit weird when you say you’re going to run after a cheese,” she says.
As we reach the top, the air of anticipation reaches an almost hysterical peak. Looking down you can’t even see the surface of the hill as it’s too steep. Combatants struggle to push to the front of the queue, as noon and the commencement of races approaches. The MC, dressed in a ribboned frock coat and top hat, begins his countdown, someone throws the cheese, and they’re off! I watch from a safe distance on the sidelines as the competitors, including a blissfully grinning Paul, tumble over one another after the giant bouncing cheese. It all looks like a rather surreal life-size version of the Babybel adverts.
There are four downhill races in total – three mens’ and one ladies’ – and some uphill races (God forbid!) for the kids. The ladies seem to have a modicum more concern for their own safety than the blokes and many slide down the hill on their bums. Dione storms to a third consecutive victory by a mile. “You just have to try and stay on your feet as much as possible,” she explains.
Karina follows her down with a big smile on her face but has to be patched up by the ambulance after landing on her wrist. She’ll have to get it x-rayed at hospital but this doesn’t dampen her enthusiasm at all. “Oh no, it was definitely worth it,” she grins. “What a buzz!” ●
● Sarah Warwick travelled to the Cheese Rolling Festival with First Festival Travel 020-8896 6070; www.firstfestivaltravel.com. A one-day tour is £49 with travel, free T-shirt and after party. This year’s event takes place on May 25. See www.cheese-rolling.co.uk
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