You've got to role with it.

By Edward Wilkinson-Latham

Cheese Rolling Festival in Gloucestershire.

Photographer: Kirsty Henderson 2005

I like a piece of cheese. No other comestible comes in so many varieties with such a range of aromas and tastes. Spread it, melt it, grate it or crumble it on anything you choose. So when I heard that some people in my native England celebrate their love of cheese by chasing it down a steep hill, I had to investigate. On a sunny day at the end of May I visited Copper’s Hill in Gloucestershire to join a throng of more than four thousand cheese loving contestants and spectators for the Annual Cheese Rolling Competition. What began hundreds of years ago, as a local pagan festival celebrating the onset of summer, is today one of the world’s most unusual adventure sports; a masochistic frolic where there can be only one victor. Contestants had come from as far as Mozambique, Australia and were all dressed in some excuse for athletic wear. I like some others who were celebrating the warm weather, were dressed in shorts and together with some newly found friends I enjoyed a few beers before the event. The three hundred yard course down the ridiculously steep and bumpy Copper’s Hill, was flanked by trees and lined with orange mesh fencing like you see on ski slopes. The contestants and spectators started to get excited as the noon approached. Beer cans were drained, cheese sandwiches were nibbled to the crust and the gladiators moved to the line. I stood at the front seeing the crowd grow with excitement. They started to chant, “Roll the cheese! Roll the cheese!” Looking down the long steep incline I began to have second thoughts, but the rabble at my back had pinned me in like a corralled sheep and someone had gripped on to the elastic of my shorts for some reason. The marshal approached the middle of the line holding in his hands the sacred seven pound Double Gloucester. Like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments he held the cheese tablet aloft. The crowd cheered louder and we edged forward another couple inches over the line. Charlton sounded the countdown. “One to be ready. Two to be steady. Three to prepare, and Four to be off.”

Like herrings spilling out of trawler’s net, we all poured forward. My shorts suddenly tightened around me and I was pushed to the ground. A pile of bodies trampled over me but as soon as the wave had past I quickly got up and galloped down the hill like a started wildebeest. I soon concluded that I wasn’t going to win and just as I decided to pull up and retire from the race, I tripped. I’m not sure if it was the grassy knowles on the course or my shredded sports shorts that had wrapped around my knees, but once I had lost balance I rolled for a further forty feet scrapping my exposed parts on thistles and concealed rocks before franticly grabbing hold of a clump of grass to stop further personal catastrophe. I sat up, felt the pain and watched the chaotic carnage unfold as other racers lost their balance rolling head-first into fences or cart wheeling like rag dolls on a straight trajectory towards the finishing line. The hillside was strewn with bodies like a battle scene. The crowd were still screaming and letting out sighs of horror as yet more contestants rolled by in gruesome contortions toward the finishing line. I could see the victor clutching the cheese aloft at the bottom of the course and a few others standing round in befuddlement and disappointment. The aftermath was gruesome. Apart from having to limp back to my car in my underpants, I witnessed the make shift field hospital tending to the injured. Over the sound of laughter and yet more cans of larger being opened, there were groans of pain and the sight of cuts and bruises on almost every body part. There were cricked necks, missing teeth, bitten tongues and a few racers were still unconscious. The prize for this diary fuelled carnage? A seven-pound Double Gloucester of course. By Edward Wilkinson-Latham. EWL © 2006

SIDE BAR:

Location: Cooper's Hill is near the village of Brockworth in the Cotswolds.

Getting there: Local train stations are Cheltenham, Gloucester and Stroud.

Driving: just off the A46 Cheltenham to Stroud road.

The Next Event - Monday 29th May 2006 at 12.00hrs.

Links

http://www.bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire/entertainment/festivals/cheese_rolling/

http://www.whatsonwhen.com/events/~31298.jml