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Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake

The Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake is an annual event held on the Spring Bank Holiday at Cooper's Hill, near Cheltenham and Gloucester in the Cotswolds region of England. It is traditionally by and for the people of Brockworth - the local village, but now people from over the world take part. The event takes its name from the hill on which it occurs.

 

From the top of the hill a round of Double Gloucester cheese is rolled, and competitors race down the hill after it. The first person over the finish line at the bottom of the hill wins the cheese. In theory, competitors are aiming to catch the cheese, but since it has a one second head start and can reach speeds up to 70 mph (112 km/h, enough to knock over and injure a spectator as it did in 1997), this rarely occurs.

 

The cheese used in the event is Double Gloucester, a hard cheese typically manufactured in cylindrical blocks. The current supplier is local cheesemaker Diana Smart, who has supplied the cheese since 1988. During the Second World War rationing was introduced, preventing the use of a cheese in the event. Consequently, from 1941 to 1954 a wooden "cheese" was used instead.

Photo: WURAS
Photo: WURAS

Due to the steepness and uneven surface of the hill there are usually a number of injuries, ranging from sprained ankles to broken bones and concussions. A first aid service is provided by the local St John Ambulance (Gloucester, Cheltenham and Stroud Divisions) at the bottom of the hill, with a volunteer rescue group on hand to carry down to them any casualties who do not end up at the bottom through gravity. A number of ambulance vehicles will attend the event, since there is invariably at least one and often several more injuries requiring hospital treatment. Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling has been summarised  as "twenty young men chase a cheese off a cliff and tumble 200 yards to the bottom, where they are scraped up by paramedics and packed off to hospital".

 

The race of 2005 was delayed while the ambulances returned from the hospital, all of them having been required to transport casualties from previous races. Nevertheless, it was one of the most popular events in recent years, with many more participants than were able to run in the four races.

Accurate information is hard to come by, but the tradition is at least 200 years old. Suggestions have been made that the event may either date back to Roman times or have been a pagan healing ritual, but there is no evidence for this.

 

Also in Gloucestershire occurs 'The Randwick Wap', an ancient procession and festival that dates back to the Middle Ages. It was revived in 1972 after having been halted due to rowdiness in 1892. In the village of Randwick upon the first Sunday in May the cheeses - usually three Double Gloucesters are blessed and then mystically rolled anticlockwise around the Church. The rolling of the cheeses supposedly wards off evil spirits. After rolling, one of the cheeses is cut up and shared amongst bystanders. Eating of the cheese protects one's fertility and ensures future generations of "Runnickers" - the local name for villagers. The other two cheeses are kept until the second Saturday in May when they are rolled down the steep slopes of the Well Leaze three times as part of the ancient Wap celebration.

Photo: Dave Farrance
Photo: Dave Farrance

For fifty years or so a 'wooden cheese' in the shape of a Stilton Cheese has been rolled in the Cambridgeshire village of Stilton. Brave teams of Stilton men and women vie to roll the cheese through the villages streets and, after the ensuing scramble, and many tussles and spills, the team that ended up steering the cheese to the finishing line would win! The starting point is outside The Bell Inn and The Angel and the finish is a line drawn at the cross roads between the bottom of Fen Street and Church Street. The contestants are teams of 4, either all men or all women and each team member has to roll the cheese at least once during it's flight. It's a knockout competition with quarter's, semi's and a grand final.

 

August 16th 2008 saw the '1st Annual Canadian Cheese Rolling Festival' at Whistler, British Colombia. Inspired by the events at Coopers Hill the festival saw daring Canadians racing down a hillside after a giant, coveted wheel of Natural Pastures Verdelait Cheese.

Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake - website