The Cheese Chasers
You’d think rolling a piece of cheese down a hill and chasing after it would be a piece of cake, or cheese for that matter. This is what the locals have been doing in the south western English county of Gloucestershire since medieval times, or since Roman times as some will tell you. Yet when you see Cooper’s hill and its ridiculously steep incline, you realize that this annual event is not the walk in the park it seems. The spectacle of 20 adults bouncing and tumbling down a precipitous field of long, wet grass after a hurtling roll of hard cheese is enough to crack your ribs, and their ankles. Competitors cartwheel and flop like rag dolls as they pursue the elusive cheddar. Ambulances line up at the bottom to conveniently ferry the injured off to a nearby hospital. Back injuries are not uncommon and all the runners suffer some sort of bloody graze or twisted ligament. The 2009 winner was taken away smiling on a stretcher clutching his 3.6kg (8 lb.) prize of solid curd to his chest. Health and Safety concerns have closed down the event three times in the past decade, and there is a special search and rescue team on standby for those who do not naturally roll to the bottom. As if this was not enough of a headache for organizers, who have the Orwellian title of “the Cheese Roll Committee,” local vegan groups are calling the race unethical and demanding that the cheese should be replaced by a non-dairy alternative.
Four thousand spectators turn up to a race that is now beamed across the world and in recent years was viewed live in Brazil. There are actually five races in total, one of which is for women only. They take place at midday in the green rolling hills of Brockworth, an hour west of London, in an area more famous for its nature trails through the Cotswolds or the traditional horse racing meeting in nearby Cheltenham. Once a year, on the May bank holiday Monday, cozy English country pubs in the area such as The Cheese Rollers pack with locals before and after the race, plotting tactics, gaining some Dutch courage, and afterward watching video highlights and nursing their wounds.
The race’s origins are a complete mystery with written records going back only 200 years. Many claim it has pagan origins, that it is a fertility rite, or a spring celebration. Some say that it was introduced to anticipate a good harvest or initiate new age healing. Such theories are not hard to believe in an area that has a magical heritage and has served as the backdrop to many a Harry Potter movie. The truth however is probably something very simple. Somebody just realized that chasing a roll of cheese down a hill is very good fun.
When to Go: Last Mon in May.
Bristol (63km/39 miles).
$$$ Plush Hotel, Bristol Airport, Redhill, North Somerset, Bristol ( 44/1934-862410; www.bristol-airport-hotels-plush-hotel.com). $$ Hotel 24/7, 15 Acramans Rd., Bristol ( 44/7711-626662; www.hotel24seven.com).