Cheese Roll Insanity in Gloustershire

“We’ve got cliffs back in Australia less steep than that.”

Click on pics for high res

27 year-old Matt Grantham has just hurled himself 250 yards down a 1 in 3 escarpment overlooking the Severn Valley in pursuit of an eight pound double Gloucester cheese. He wasn’t alone. On Cheese Rolling Day, as on the second May Bank Holiday every year, about 100 other men and 20 women run full tilt, bounce, and cartwheel down ultra-steep Cooper’s Hill while 5,000 gawping spectators marvel at their daring / stupidity.
From the top
It’s comparable to sprinting down the steepest part of a black rated ski run, without the snow. “I think I took about three steps down the whole thing.” Says 25 year-old Dallas Royston, another Aussie. Nobody stays on their feet for long. From around a second after the start, the crowd are gasping and saying “Oh Jesus” under their breath at scenes that could come from ‘America’s Worst Mountaineering Accidents’. 22 year-old Mike West from New Zealand summed up the experience nicely: “You’re rolling over, people flying into you… Wicked, eh! Now I’m going to have a beer!”They're off

First down the slope wins. Ostensibly runners are chasing a cheese rolled by a local luminary, but it goes at around 70 mph so they’re never going to catch it. The point of the cheese, as well as being the prize, might be to ensure that the spectators take their share of the danger. This year a woman was floored by a truckle to the shoulder. In 1997 someone was knocked unconscious by the dairy projectile. Helpfully, he tumbled 100 feet down the slope to the stretchers of the waiting ambulance people.Hurt

There are a lot of people in St John’s Green and Fluorescent Yellow regalia milling capably at the foot of the hill, for good reason. Local lad Chris Anderson wins the second race, but is carted off to hospital with a suspected broken ankle, cheese pressed proudly to his chest.

They're offHelping to curb the injuries are the Gloucester Civil Service Tigers Rugby Football Club. They’re arranged in kick-off receipt formation at the bottom of the hill, ready to catch the runners. “It’s good tackling practice and good fun,” explains Tiger Andy Wakeham. “You hit them as hard as you like and they thank you for it.”

Injuries this year are low. Out of the 30 treated, only four are hospitalised (3 suspected broken limbs and a concussion). In other words, approximately 1 in 30 runners went to hospital and 1 in 4 needed medical attention.

Ladies winner25 year-old New Zealander (yes, there is a pattern) Dione Carter (right) returned to defend her 2004 ladies’ title and won again without injury, although: “About halfway down I though I was going to die. I smashed my face into the ground and had no control whatsoever. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done – much scarier than last year. I’d had a few drinks last year.”

Who started the race and why? Retired teacher Jean Jeffries has written an as-yet-unpublished book on the event (contact her through web link below, literary agents). She says: “There are no records of the event whatsoever before the mid 1800s. It could have been Ancient British, Roman, Phoenician. Nobody knows. tumblers 2It’s very difficult to research. Most of my sources are newspapers and they just make stuff up.” (She said as a dragon flew overhead) “It was definitely part of an ancient fair which took place on the site with sports like wresting, shin-kicking and tug-of-war. The tug-of-war and children’s races continued until recently, but the men got too competitive and the children weren’t interested so they were stopped. We still scatter sweets at the top of the hill for youngsters where they used to scatter cake, which would suggest it’s a fertility festival. But, as it was moved back from mid Summer several years ago, that seems unlikely.”

Also, as runner Matt Grantham points out: “I’m a bit confused that it’s a fertility ritual. I can’t imagine that your bollocks bouncing down that hill can be particularly good for your fertility.”

tumblersWhatever the reason, it’s a good family day out. The treacherous task of climbing the hill unites the crowd as they help with each other’s children and dogs. And, as 28 year-old Londoner Eleanor Hatfield points out: “It’s such a good, honest day out because there’s no corporate sponsorship. No Ben and Jerry’s, no Red Bull, nothing.”

To take part next year, go along to the top of the hill an hour or so early and enrol. Technique advice varies. St Johns Spokesman Jim Jones suggests relaxing as you start to fall and just letting yourself tumble. Gloucester Tiger Andy Wakeham suggests bike leathers. Jean Jeffries reckons you should wear clothes you never want to wear again. All of them suggest plenty of alcohol both beforehand and afterwards.

DETAILS

Takes place on the second May Bank Holiday Monday on Cooper’s Hill, outside Brockworth near Gloucester.
Entry fee is £5.
See www.cheese-rolling.co.uk for details.