The origins of this event go back about two hundred years to the early 1800s, and due to a number of factors, including its traditional nature, its relative informality, and its itinerant nature in the past 15 years, it’s tricky to get the full story. Suffice to say, some believe it has its roots (date back to times of the Romans) in pagan rituals celebrating the start of spring; some say it’s fertility related; other reports say it also took place alongside other unusual competitions.
In the past nearly 20 years, the event has been held with some regularity almost every year, typically on the last Saturday in May and is presided over by a Master of Ceremonies. On any given year, several thousand people get together and watch roughly between 20-40 contestants (in numerous races with different contestants each time) chase a 8-pound wheel of cheese or, in 2013, its plastic replica) down a very steep (with a 2:1 gradient)(295 foot) hill in the English countryside. On purpose. For fun. For bragging rights. And, of course, to take home the cheese—which can reach speeds of up to 70 miles per hour, hurtling down the hill. If you’re the first one down the hill, you win it.
The competition’s races are short, intense and not for the faint of heart or the easily bruised. The organization of the race itself is as informal as it can possibly get. If you want to enter, you just show up and do it. There are no application fees or forms. Traditionally, it’s been held by and for the people of the local village Brockworth, about a mile away from Cooper’s Hill, but it’s grown a bit beyond that to attract international attention in the past few years. Last year’s competition attracted more than 5,000 people, but previous years have attracted upwards of 15,000 (in 2009—the last officially-organized event).
There are typically five downhill races; four for men, one for women, with one uphill component as well, but this can vary from year to year. It’s a competition in which broken bones, bruised organs, dislocated shoulders and concussions do sometimes happen; ripped clothing, scratches and other cuts come with the territory. The terrain is a public ground, and it’s rough and uneven. It’s a likely outcome that some people will end up in the hospital, and it’s partly why—oh, apart from the whole cheese rolling business—the festival has been subject to much notoriety.
In 2010, the festival was “officially” canceled due to health and safety concerns for everyone involved: the cheese runners, attendees, and anyone innocently caught in the path; in the past, even audience members have inadvertently fallen down into the mess, (and hospitialized due to being hit by the cheese) as the hill is really steep. In 1997, 33 people were transported to the local hospital for injuries as small as splinters and as significant as broken bones. In 2011, in an attempt to make the event safer for everyone involved, organizers announced they would make it a two-day affair with an entrance fee to cover the cost of managing the anticipated crowds with security and fencing. The move incited such violent outbursts that the rolling was officially canceled altogether—again, out of safety concerns—but a couple hundred people met and rolled the cheese anyway. If the event took place during world wars, you can imagine that very little can keep people away from this cliff-like hill. The event has continued unofficially since and is run by handful of locals.
Fake Plastic Cheese
In 2013, octogenarian Diana Smart from Smart’s Farm in Churcham, which had been supplying the event with the winning cheese since 1988, was intimidated out of participating. The local police said the farm had to stop supplying the event with cheese; otherwise, the farm’s involvement would translate into liability for any injuries sustained. Thus, 2013 saw the introduction of fake plastic wheels to chase, although the winners still received real cheese. It’s too bad, because Smart’s the only one still making Double Gloucester, a raw milk’s cheese with a dense, crumbly texture.
Why Chase Cheese
An international field of daredevils from all over the world compete, but there’s definitely an element of hometown pride at work; 20-something local legend Chris Anderson is often a fixture, having won the race 15 times to date. Lately, he faces increasing competition as word of this wacky event continues to gain worldwide attention (videos have over 3 million views on youtube). In 2013, two of the four races went to locals, including two-time winning 16-year-old Lucy Townsend. Another race was won by 39-year-old Tomoaki Tanaka, from Japan, who dressed like a ninja for the occasion. Another winner was 27-year-old Kenneth Rackers, a former Army soldier from Colorado Springs, Colorado. He heard about it while he was in college, put it on his “bucket list,” and decided to challenge himself to bring home the cheese. His training involved extraordinary measures, including pushing a Jeep, along with feats of stamina and endurance such as running up and down similarly-pitched hills on his home terrain.
For Rackers, the race has morphed into a launch pad for his project and documentary film, One In a Million, inspiring others to chase their dreams. It’s not necessarily about the cheese—one prior winner, a local lad, confessed he didn’t even like it. And on a practical level, you don’t ever really get the cheese: it gets a head start. Once it takes off, it flies down that hill and typically eclipses everyone to bounce over the finish line—a chalk mark in the grass.