In post-enlightenment society, with its strong emphasis on
recorded proof (to the degree that anything without a reliable paper trail is
considered a fiction), oral tradition counts for very little. Yet, in researching the ancient sports and rituals of the British Isles, that is often all there is to go by.
One of the enduring mysteries of such rural traditions is that the most natural first
question of all – “Why do they do that?” – simply cannot be answered.
The village of Brockworth near Gloucester
lies at the foot of a sheer grass-covered scarp slope – Cooper’s Hill –
which is part of a larger geological feature sometimes called the Cotswold
Edge (the result of the uplifting of the underlying limestone layer, exposing
its broken edge as a cliff face). For as
far back in history as anyone can tell – the ritual is claimed by some to be
pre-Roman – people have thrown themselves down this precipice, racing in
nominal pursuit of a wheel of cheese.
Many see no need to question the origin or purpose of
cheese-rolling, safe in the knowledge that the sport is so aesthetically unique and eye-catchingly perilous as to require no logical
justification. But it should be noted that rituals involving the
throwing of objects down hills (or over cliffs) are known to have dotted the
history of the more pagan-influenced communities in Britain throughout recorded
history, usually as part of a healing or exorcism ritual (similar to the releasing of a ‘scape goat’ in ancient Judaism). For example, some contemporary wassails in Herefordshire still conclude with fires (lit in the tree branches to eradicate demons) being rolled
down the hill into the River Wye.
So, Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling may be the remnant of an annual cleansing ritual. However, since the races were accompanied until recent times by the
scattering of fruit cake across the ground by the Master of Ceremonies – a
ritual known to have links to ancient fertility rites – social historians are still scratching their heads.
In any case, the roots of the event – formally known as The
Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake – are shrouded in mystery. Originally partaken in solely by local
villagers, it was first reported more widely in the early 1800s, and though it
has shed a few peripheral activities since then (eg. ‘dancing for ribbons’, ‘grinning (through a horse’s collar) for a cake’, and ‘bobbing for penny loaves smeared in treacle’), the main event has remained little changed.
The Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake is held annually
on the Spring Bank Holiday. The festival
was originally held at Midsummer but was moved at some time to Whitsuntide,
taking place on Whit Monday. In 1967,
the British Government loosed the Bank Holiday from its Church calendar moorings so that
it would always fall on the last Monday in May.
The ‘Cheese Rolling and Wake’ was moved accordingly.
In the lead up to the event, members of the CHCR Committee
and volunteers spend two weeks clearing the slope, erecting fences at the top
and sides, and building a wall of straw bales at the foot. The cheeses (7-8lb Double Gloucesters) are
hand-made by Diana Smart of Churcham, using milk from her herd of Brown
Swiss, Holstein and Gloucester
cows. Mrs Smart is the only person in
Gloucestershire still making Double Gloucester cheeses by hand, using
traditional methods, and she has provided the cheeses for rolling since 1988.
The races start promptly at 12 noon, over a course of
approximately 200 yards. It is a
testament to its steepness that the fastest finishers regularly break 15
seconds for the distance, faster than world record speed on the flat. There is a maximum of 15 people per downhill
race and a minimum age of 18 years (at the discretion of the Master of
The role of the Master of
Ceremonies – presently Rob Seex, a local dairy farmer – is that of ceremonial
host and race starter. Raising his staff
and with a cry of, “ONE to be ready,TWO to be steady, THREE to
prepare” (at which time the cheese is launched), “and FOUR to be
off!” the competitors give chase.
Prizes are awarded for each race:
1st prize – the cheese
2nd – £10
3rd – £5
There are now 5 Men’s Races and one Ladies’ Race, plus Boys,
Girls, Men’s and Women’s uphill races.
Delays often occur when awaiting the return of the ambulances from
transporting injured competitors to the hospital. No deaths have ever been reported.
In recent years, increased publicity (including widespread international exposure) has seen greatly increased numbers attending the Wake. The cancellation of the 2010 event was a direct result of there being over 15,000 spectators in attendance the previous year.
Only one Cooper’s Hill Master of Ceremonies is known to have
retired – all others have died in office.
From time to time, great cheese-rolling champions have
arisen. The two greatest of these,
Stephen Gyde of Brockworth and Stephen Brain of Gloucester, won 38 cheeses between 1978 and
2000. Both are now retired. The newest pretender to their crown, Chris
Anderson of Brockworth, has now amassed 6 cheeses in 6 years, and featured in
the video for the Maccabees, ‘Can You Give It’ – see below.
War rationing, introduced in 1941, meant that a wooden
‘cheese’ was used until 1954. Within its paper wrappings, a small compartment
was left for a tiny piece of cheese, in order that tradition might properly be
maintained. Cheeses have also been
rolled every year (including 2010) in which the Wake has been cancelled.
A total of 93 Penalty Charge Notices were issued on the 25th
May 2009 in the vicinity of the cheese rolling event by Tewkesbury Borough
council for parking offences.