Cheese Rolling: The History of Cooper’s Hill and How to Get Involved

There is a reason that Ardman Animations chose to make Wallace obsessed with cheese in the TV and film series of Wallace & Gromit. There are very few English people that don’t absolutely love cheese, with those that claim not to like it tending to be viewed with suspicion and concern by their family and friends. There are some that like it on its own, whilst others will pair it with a tasty cracker or put it on a sandwich. It isn’t unheard of for people to enjoy a nice glass of win with some cheese, should they fancy being a bit classy. One of the weirdest uses of cheese, however, involves chasing it down a hill.

What Is Cheese Rolling?

Elsewhere on this site you can read about the likes of the Gravy Wrestling Championships or the Wife Carrying World Championship, both of which are decidedly strange things that happen in various locations around the United Kingdom. There is one thing that arguably sits about them in terms of weirdness, whilst also being something that seems quintessentially British. Cheese rolling involves a nine-pound truckle of Double Gloucester cheese being rolled off the top of a hill, only for competitors to chase after it and attempt to be the first person to cross the finish line after it and be declared as the winner.

At least, that is how things used to be. As you might imagine, chasing a massive piece of cheese down a hill can be a dangerous thing to do, not least of all because of how quickly it picks up speed on its descent. As a result, the cheese was given a one-second head start, thanks in no small part to the fact that even spectators have been injured by the cheese in the past, let alone participants. In 2013 the decision was even taken to replace the real truckle of cheese with a foam replica in order to ensure the safety of everyone concerned, which obviously made the entire thing slightly less fun and a lot less smelly but a lot safer.

The History of Cheese Rolling

The exact origin of the cheese rolling ceremony isn’t known, with the first written evidence of it dating back to 1826. That was when a note about it was written to a town crier, but even then the evidence suggested that it was an old tradition, with some suggesting that it was as much as 600 years old. There have been two possible origins put forward over the years, with the first being that it evolved from a requirement to maintain grazing rights on the common close to where it takes place. The second is linked to pagan customs of rolling objects down a bill, with burning brushwood originally used in order to celebrate the birth of a new year after the end of winter.

Something that gives the second possible origin more credence is that the Master of Ceremonies still scatters biscuits, buns and sweets at the top of the hill, which is considered to be fertility rite that encourages the fruits of harvest. Whatever the origin, it is a ceremony that has happened for years and remains popular to this day. Even when there have been attempts to cancel it, such as in 2011 when no management of the event took place, there were still around 500 people that turned up and held their own, spontaneous events. The tradition is one that locals are keen to keep going, such as in 2010 when a group turned up and did a smaller version of it.

Where & When it Happens

Even if you don’t like cheese, there is still a good chance that you will know that Gloucester is one of the most famous areas in the country for it. Cooper’s Hill in the parish of Brockworth is where the cheese rolling takes place each year, with the main people competing to ‘catch’ the cheese coming from the local village. There are, though, competitors from all over the world who head to Gloucester in order to be involved in this curious contest. The neighbouring village of Sherrington has a pub called The Cheese Rollers, in which you can often find competitors both before and after the cheese roll takes place, getting some Dutch courage or consoling each other.

In terms of when the cheese rolling takes place, it is usually held on the Monday bank holiday in late Spring, with the event itself getting underway at 12pm. There are actually four downhill races, with three of them being for men and one for women. There should be a maximum number of 14 entrants, but there are normally far more than this chasing after the cheese and trying to get to it before anyone else. It is started by the Master of Ceremonies shouting, “One to be ready, two to be steady, three to prepare and four to be off”. The cheese is released on ‘three’, with the contestants beginning their chase on the ‘four’.

Getting Involved

A contestant dressed up as a cow
A contestant dressed up as a cow (ninjawil, Flickr)

The good news for anyone hoping to be involved with the Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling competition is that there are no specific criteria that need to be met. You don’t need to fill out any paperwork or, as you might imagine, sign any disclosures. Instead, the main thing that you need to do is to turn up on time and make yourself known to the organisers. Just because you don’t need to sign a disclosure doesn’t mean that you aren’t entering at your own risk, however. It is fair to say that this isn’t something for people to do just on a whim. Many of the contestants take this very seriously and are particularly keen to win.

With this in mind, you’d do well to have a big think about whether or not this is something that you actually want to do. After all, not only is injury more than a possibility, there is a good chance that you’ll ruin whatever clothes you have on for the chase. There are dozens of people who are keen to get to the finish line before you, meaning that it is entirely likely that you will become collateral damage in their chase for success. Yes, you can take part in a competition that you may never get to do anywhere else, but you need to make sure that the risks associated with it make it worth doing before the cheese starts to roll.

What Cheese Is Used?

Given the fact that the contest takes place in the county of Gloucestershire, it is perhaps no real surprise that the cheese chosen for the competition is a Double Gloucester. The hard cheese is traditionally made in a circular shape, making it ideal for sending down a hillside to be chased be people desperate to win. The cheese is protected by a wooden casing around its side, also being decorated with ribbons. Previously the cheeses were rolled by parishioners, with a collection raised to purchased them and the sweets that the Master of Ceremonies drops at the top of the hill, but that doesn’t happen any more for numerous reasons.

The cheese began to be supplied by a local cheesemaker named Diana Smart in 1988. Her and her son, Rod, supplied the cheese from their Churcham Farm venue, with Diana eventually retiring. In 2013, she was warned by a police inspector that she could be held liable for any accidents or injuries that occurred in the cheese rolling, Gloucester Constabulary’s Chief Superintendent at the time, Nigel Avron, confirming that anyone involved in the contest in any way could be held liable for ‘something that took place at the event’. In response, Smart said that she was ‘pretty angry’ and that there ‘wasn’t a lot’ that she could do.

Can You Do It Anywhere Else?

Cheese rolling in Chester
Cheese Rolling in Chester (BrianP, Wikipedia)

Whilst Cooper’s Hill in Gloucester is the main place that cheese rolling takes place, you might want to think about doing it somewhere else if you can. There might be numerous unofficial versions that take place around the country, but the only well-known one that has occurred in the past is the cheese rolling competition that happened in Chester for a time. That, though, works in an entirely different way to the cheese rolling that you might witness on Cooper’s Hill. Instead of throwing themselves down a hill in order to try to get to the bottom as quickly as possible, participants literally rolled cheese along the floor.

Taking place on Bridge Street in the centre of Chester, the event began as a build-up to the city’s Food & Drink Festival and involved people having to roll a block of cheese down a hill, around an obstacle and then back up the slop in relays of three. Whereas the Cooper’s Hill contest is effectively uncontrolled chaos, what happened in Chester was much more deliberate and intentional. With Chester cheese being one of the oldest in the world and reportedly the reason behind the smiling Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, it is perhaps no surprise that the city decided to have a cheese rolling contest of its own.

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