Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling is all the proof anybody needs of English eccentricity. A glorious spectacle of grown men and women tumbling down a near vertical hillside – vainly attempting to catch a Double Gloucester cheese – it is patently completely ridiculous. It’s also just as dangerous as it sounds – even spectators have been known to have sustained injuries; in 2009 six apparently fainted simply through excitement. Because of safety concerns due to sheer numbers attending the 2010 event was officially cancelled although a few unofficial races went ahead without incident.
As always, there are numerous theories, both plausible and ludicrous, as to how the cheese rolling began but we do know for sure that it is a tradition reaching back at least two centuries. Taking place just on the outskirts of the Gloucestershire village of Brockworth, the Cheese Rolling was originally a part of a midsummer festival until it was changed to Whit Monday. In 1967, with the formation of the Spring Bank Holiday on the last Monday in May, it was moved to that time of the year – its present annual date.
Cooper’s Hill is a delightful Nature Reserve for most of the year, close to the Severn Valley, the Malverns, the Welsh Mountains and one of the places on the famous Cotswold Way. From mid-day on Spring Bank Holiday Monday, however, this peaceful corner of England is transformed into a mecca for adventure-seekers from all round the world.
There are five downhill races – including one for women. Even perhaps more bizarrely, there are four uphill races, although there is no rolled cheese to chase after.
For the main events – the downhill Cheese Rolling Championships – a local dignitary will simply roll the round Double Gloucester Cheese – handmade by Mrs Diana Smart of Churcham since 1988 – down the precipitous hill and competitors hurl themselves after it. It is nigh on impossible not to tumble or cartwheel on the way down, although most people simply bounce more or less upright and keep going. The winner gets to keep the cheese. Everybody who doesn’t need medical attention considers themselves to be the real winner, I suspect.
The Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling has become more international during the past few years – winners in 2009 came not only from England but also from Donegal, Zimbabwe, Brazil and 7 from Australia and New Zealand, which might confirm what some people believe of the qualities of antipodean sportsmen and women!
At the end of the afternoon, a children’s ‘scramble’ gives them the chance to run around on the hill and collect sweets – and no doubt roll about a fair bit.
All joking aside, however, this is a tremendously enjoyable day in the Gloucestershire countryside. The people of Brockworth and the surrounding area are enormously proud of the cheese rolling tradition and offer a wonderfully warm welcome to everyone – participants and spectators. It’s a lovely traditional picnic spot – as well as there being two pubs, The Cross Hands and the Victoria in the village and the ‘Cheese Rollers’ pub in Shurdington just three miles away.
Despite being a small village, Brockworth is easy to find, being just to the east of Junction 11a of the M5 Motorway. It’s fewer than five miles from both Cheltenham and Gloucester and only an hour from Birmingham and Bristol. Drivers are always requested not to park on the A46 main road between Cheltenham and Painswick and there is a field designated as a Car park just 300 metres from the hill. Although it does cost £5 to park the car, there is no entrance fee to the Cheese Rolling itself. Each year there is a collection for a specifically nominated charity.
The organiser’s always like a few strong volunteers to stand at the foot of the hill to prevent runners heading off into the Gloucestershire countryside – or head first into a tree – and you can get details of how to help, participate, or just watch by logging on to their web site.