The Cooper's Hill Cheese Roll
The power of cheese
by Holly Hartman
"If the runners jump the gun, they are likely to get a cheese in the back."
The phrase "extreme sports" does not usually bring to mind a mob chasing a wheel of cheese down a hill. But the annual Cooper's Hill Cheese Roll, which will take place May 29, 2000, in Gloucestershire, England, is not only sporting but dangerous.
At last year's event more than 2,000 spectators stood behind a wall of safety netting as about 100 racers lurched down Cooper's Hill, attempting to overtake a high-speed cheese.
Danger in Gloucestershire
Each year the master of ceremonies orders the eight-pound wheel of Double Gloucester cheese released at the count of three. The runners follow at the count of four.
The 300-yard slope is 45 degrees on average, too steep to run down safely. With its small size and aerodynamic shape, the cheese can gather speed to more than 30 mph—much faster than a human can run.
A report by the Gloucestershire branch of the Royal Society of St. George, a patriotic organization, described the mayhem:
"The cheese bowls down the slope at ever increasing speed with young racers hurling themselves after it, straining to keep upright as their legs become a blur. Most of them do not and they present a terrifying sight to the tender hearted."
Felled by Cheese
At the bottom of the hill, volunteers try to catch the racers as they pitch to a stop. Last year 30-year-old Stephen Brain won the race without injury. Says Brain, "The trick is to try and stay on your feet."
He was among the lucky ones. In 1998 the event was cancelled due to a high number of cheese injuries the previous year, when 27 racers were harmed in the chase. Participants have suffered broken arms and legs as well as neck and head injuries. The sidelines, too, can be unsafe—in 1994 an escaped cheese broke the leg of a nine-year-old boy.
Local organizer Iris Peasley says it is especially dangerous to run in front of the cheese. "If the runners jump the gun, they are likely to get a cheese in the back," she points out. Peasley believes the situation has worsened in recent years. "In the old days, people ran without falling, but people seem to be in such a hurry these days."
Ancient Ritual or Modern Rally?
According to local legend, the cheese roll began as a pagan ritual that welcomed spring. Others claim it is the remnant of an ancient fertility rite.
It is thought to be more likely, however, that the cheese roll started some 200 years ago as a way to symbolically reclaim common grazing lands at a time when the government threatened to transfer those lands to private owners. In modern times, locals raise a flagpole before the event to represent the common people's right to the land.
The winner of the race gets to take home the cheese, a wheel of Double Gloucester that is wrapped in cardboard and ribbons for the event. The cheese weighs about eight pounds and is approximately nine inches across. According to the maker of the cheese, Diana Smart, "If it were bigger it could get quite dangerous."
Even Smart's role is not without hazard. She had to have the horns removed from her sweet-faced Gloucester cows after one attacked her.
Double Gloucester, a local specialty that tastes much like cheddar, is the traditional cheese at Cooper's Hill. During World War II, however, when cheese was rationed, a wooden cheese was rolled. A few years ago an unofficial group held an alternative cheese roll nearby using a Dutch Gouda.
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