06-06-2022

Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake

Cooper’s Hill is a steep grassy knoll, where on a day in June, hundreds of competitors subject themselves to the forces of gravity in a fickle attempt to capture a tumbling wheel of cheese. Unable to maintain their speed, competitors cartwheel across the uneven grooves of the eroding mound, breaking bones in desperate pursuit of victory.

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In the village of Brockworth, close to the city of Gloucester, a supposed 600-year-old cheese rolling festival attracts thousands of visitors and widespread media coverage. After an absence induced by the pandemic, the festivities resume over the Platinum Jubilee weekend, with thousands of people clinging to the grassy bank. Their noise penetrates through the woodland that borders the cheese rolling course.

The cheese awaits the first race, prized from the plastic bag by the Master of Ceremonies

‘The custom of cheese rolling…is intended to remind villagers of their rights to graze sheep on the hill, which has a gradient of one in three’.
From ‘A Year of Festivals: A Guide to British Calendar Customs’ by Geoffrey Palmer & Noel Lloyd.

Cheese rolling is thought to be the last custom to remain of the Cooper’s Hill Wake, a Whitsun gathering similar to the Cotswold Olimpicks, where events such as wrestling and shin-kicking, as well as a maypole, were once purported features. Historical evidence of cheese rolling near Brockworth was first discovered in a letter written and delivered to Gloucester’s town crier in 1826. As with many local traditions, its origins are thought to predate our modern historical records and subsequently the origins and reasonings behind it are unclear. Some believe that pagans once rolled bundles of burning brush down Coopers Hill, a rite representing the birth of a new year. Buns and cakes were scattered atop the summit, an offering for a bountiful harvest during the warmer months. These rites may have united, thus becoming the well-loved festival of today. 

The Master of Ceremonies, Jem Wakeman, clad in his white jacket and top hat, of which the latter is wrapped in a ribbon that also clings to the circular wheel of cheese, oversees proceedings. Grasped in his hand is a wooden pole; the flagstaff serves as a reminder that the ‘custom celebrates the rights of the people to dance around the maypole’. A wooden rim cases the decorated cheese and aids with both the rolling and preserving of the Double Gloucester wheel. Since 1988, the cheese has been provided by local cheesemaker Diana Smart. Though having retired, her son Rod has taken on the responsibility. In 2013 Diana was warned by a police inspector that she could be held responsible for injuries suffered whilst chasing her cheese. Reports suggest that a foam faux-cheese has been used in place of the hardened Double Gloucester in recent years, in an effort to prevent injury to spectators from an errant wheel. 

Most injuries are caused by Cooper's Hill's steep and uneven surface. The grass that is rooted into the gradient hides muddy crevasses and silty mounds. Human ankles stand little chance of resisting even a mild sprain. Some will suffer worse fates, with twisted limbs flailing and compressed under body weight. For those that make it to the base of the hill unscathed, they fly into the arms of the local rugby club. The ‘catchers’ have a duty of care; it is their responsibility to slow unsteady participants. 

"...twenty young men chasing a cheese off a cliff and tumbling 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital".
Sydney Morning Herald, 13th November 2008.

Chris Anderson provides running advice to his fellow competitors

Atop Cooper’s Hill, overlooking the steep summit, a crowd of people begin to congregate from mid-morning. With each new arrival comes an audible gasp of horror at the gradient of the misty mound. The event has received international recognition since the start of the 21st century, when it was outlawed by Gloucestershire County Council. Local people carried on. As owners of the land, the council sought to ban the rolling through fear of injury and possible negligence on their part. The resilient spirit of the people of Brockworth, told via the news bulletins of national and international press, has gone on to inspire a large number of willing participants from foreign lands. After the cancelled events of the pandemic years, this year's roll was attended by runners from the USA, South Korea and Austria, all of whom brushed shoulders with experienced local faces. 

The most notable presence on the hill arrives in the form of Chris Anderson. Carrying a supermarket bag brimming with cheese, he crawls directly up the face of the hill. A solitary figure, he stops intermittently to catch his breath and clear debris from the track. The dew that glistens on each blade of long grass slows his climb, but he is warmly greeted by friends and accosted by camera-wielding media upon reaching the top. Chris is the recognisable face of the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling festivities, where for 15 years he has dominated the hill, winning a total of 23 races. Previously a Light infantryman of the First Battalion, The Rifles, Anderson lives at the foot of Cooper’s Hill, as a local of Brockworth. He is a humble champion. 

Just before midday, the racers are given the signal to take their positions. Anderson and the other runners sit alongside each other, their backs pressed against a flimsy wire fence. The seated crowds rise, jostling for position to see the first race. The Master of Ceremonies, on this occasion, handed the cheese to a woman wearing a pink rain jacket. Taking her place in the centre of the runners, the cheese was held aloft to cheers from the crowd. Its eventual release saw the men of the first race spring to their feet. Whilst some displayed caution, Anderson and a handful of others could be seen hurtling down the hill. 

Claiming his 23rd title, Anderson could be seen grabbing his ribs before having the wheel of cheese thrust into his grasp. No doubt winded, he promptly declared his intention to retire from the sport. 

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