Dangerous, stupid or just a bit of English fun? It’s definitely one of the more bizarre British customs that I’ve come across.
Bad press surrounding the cheese rolling competition held annually in Gloucestershire had seemingly promoted the event. Any publicity is, well, publicity, I guess. Local and international competitors gathered, ready to run a race down a near vertical strip of pitted farmland and claim victory in front of an adoring – and somewhat tipsy – crowd.
Take Kenny Rackers, for example, a 27 year old who travelled over from the US with only one thing on his mind: to win. ‘I came 3,000 or 4,000 miles just for this race,’ he told journalists. ‘I trained a long time for this and got hurt on the hill practising. I came three days early and I took a bad spill, but I came to win.’
Having ambled up along a winding road into what felt like private farmland, I just made it in time for the end of the first race. I nestled my way in to the front of the crowds and there stood Kenny, clad in stars and stripes and holding high the mighty cheese. ‘I came over specially for this and I did what I had to do to win,’ he said. People queued to get pictures. Celebrity cheese chaser. Nice work.
I looked up at the top of the hill, some 200 metres away. Clustered with squatting people, it looked as though they were having to hold on to tufts of grass to avoid falling down. Occasionally someone did. The photos, quite frankly, do not do the steepness justice. Coopers Hill has become infamous for this one day, once a year. The rest of the year, though? Pah. Mountain goats, maybe?
I watched the next race, a flurry of tumbling bodies, bouncing bodies. The cheese, replaced this year by a foam replica, hit a chunk of earth and split off to the side. Legs struggled to keep up with downhill momentum, tumbles followed tumbles and tripped others up. At the finish line men walked around dazed, a blend of naked torsos and smudged mud make-up.
And so it repeated and repeated until I watched a man flip and then stop still. He tried to shuffle, but then lifted his leg. His foot stuck out sideways, and a sea of people groaned.
The crowd, revved on a good dose of bystander adrenaline and cider blur, started to disperse to the tune of an ambulance siren. Paramedics brought out the stretcher and the health and safety boohoos rubbed their hands in delight with the ammunition newly granted to them.
Another victory for sensibility over tradition? Let’s hope not. At least the grandmother who had until this year provided the cheese could rest assured that the police wouldn’t be knocking on her door, again. ‘They threatened me, saying I would be wholly responsible if anyone got injured,’ she told the Telegraph days before the event.
Yet the appeal of the event doesn’t seem to be fading. Thousands of people still climbed up to Coopers Hill to watch the somersaults, and plenty of people still entered the competition knowing full well the dangers involved. Like the running of the tar barrels in Ottery St Mary, this event has associated risks. What’s wrong with the competitors taking some responsibility for themselves?
So is it dangerous, stupid or just a bit of fun? Quirky, sure. I’ll go with that.
- Cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill (official website)
- American flies in to win Gloucestershire cheese rolling contest (the guardian.com)
- American wins Gloucestershire cheese-rolling race, despite health and safety warnings (metro.co.uk)
- Kenny Rackers, Making America Proud From 4,000 Miles Away (averagenobodies.wordpress.com)