There I crouched, on what seemed to be the edge of oblivion. My friend Nicko was beside me, though he seemed half a world away. My eyes focused into tunnel vision, seeing meadow, more meadow, then empty space. Complete and absolute nothingness. Sloping down at an absurd angle, the meadow left only air where in a normal world, in a fair world, it would’ve remained.
The voice of the starter was muffled, engulfed by the sound of my heartbeat thumping in my eardrums. But his gun cut straight through. My senses sharpened. Blurred shapes transformed into bodies and began to move toward the edge. I moved with them, carried forth by a 50-strong crowd of imbeciles.
Gloucester Cheese Roll: the Event
The Gloucester Cheese Roll, officially Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake, is a thing of legend – the perennial focus of SportsCenter Top 10 countdowns, documentary crews, and collectors of offbeat experiences.
Held annually in the hilly outskirts of Gloucester, England on Whit/Pentecost Monday (between mid-May and early June), the Cheese Roll is older than local recorded history. The first written description of the event, in 1826, made it obvious that the madness had already been going on for a long while.
The proposed origin stories vary, though none are backed by much evidence. Some say the Ancient Romans were the first to hurl things down the hill from a fort formerly found at the top. Others declare it a pagan ritual to celebrate the end of the long English winter. Others still say it was originally used as a means to maintain grazing rights over the land.
The modern interpretation of the event is somewhat less practical. For some, it’s a chance to dip their hats to those who have gone before, but the overwhelming majority are motivated by nothing more than adrenaline.
As if shot out of a cannon, the Double Gloucester was long gone, appearing to gather more speed than it would’ve in pure freefall.
I saw Nicko ahead, already tipping face first into the ridiculously angled pasture. I began on my arse, sliding down slowly, before realising that the only thing more painful than throwing myself down a cliff dressed as a hill was to come last.
I got to my feet and began a careful jog. One step later I found myself in a gallop, the next a sprint, and by the third my legs couldn’t keep up. I leaned into the fall, springing off the hill, and tucking into a forward roll that I hoped would see me landing on my back rather than my forehead.
Gloucester Cheese Roll: the Rules
A 4kg/9lb disc of Double Gloucester is carefully prepared in the weeks leading up to the event, handpicked by experts and wrapped tightly in cloth to ensure structural integrity and maximum speed.
This isn’t an organised event because no one wants to claim liability for it. This means that there are no tickets, timers, or registration booths. Anyone can rock up on the day, perch themselves atop the hill, then toss themselves off it.
The cheese is given a one second head start before a bunch of brave idiots are granted the opportunity to catch it. With the 50% gradient helping the cheese reach speeds of up to 110kph/70mph, you’d be right in thinking that it’s yet to be caught.
50 or so entrants generally take part in each 200 yard race, of which there are usually four on the day: three for the men and one for the women. This makes sense given that males are three times more stupid than females, scientifically speaking
Gloucester Cheese Roll: the Risk
In 1997 no fewer than 33 people were treated for injuries after one particularly messy race. Nothing terminal, but broken bones aplenty. The following year the event was put on hold, a decision that left cheese-rolling enthusiasts fuming.
Health and safety concerns saw it cancelled again in 2009, but this time the locals decided they’d hold an informal one anyway. “No one’s going to stop us doing it. They say it’s not official, but we are all [Gloucester] people, and we’re running the cheese today, so it is official,” proclaimed former winner, Helen Thorpe.
In many ways the event has gone back to its traditional roots, although recent years have seen it bending ever so slightly to modernity. A local rugby team patrols the foot of the hill, gently tackling anyone carrying enough inertia to hit the fence 10 metres from the base. In 2013, the disc of dairy seriously injured a spectator, which saw it temporarily replaced with a foam replica.
All in all, the Cheese Roll has been made as safe as such a daft event can be.
After either two seconds or a lifetime— I couldn’t decide which—I was almost at the finish line. Using a combination of luck and technique, I’d made my way through the chasing pack. Just the final sprint remained.
A word of advice for potential cheese chasers: Cooper’s Hill flattens out a little at the bottom, and after flying down a 50% gradient you might see the final section of the slope as flat land. It is not.
I got to my feet and started running, leaning forward for maximum speed. I quickly realised my mistake. In trying to stay upright I simply extended the act of falling on my face over 20 metres. By the time I did fall it wasn’t into earth, but into the knee of a hulking rugby player at the bottom.
Cooper’s Hill had drawn my blood in the most embarrassing way possible.
Gloucester Cheese Roll: the Reward
My head was still ringing as it hung over my pint at The Victoria Inn, one of the traditional post-race rehydration points. I was bruised, bleeding, broken.
But I chose to ignore the outward wear and tear, instead focusing on the heady mix of adrenaline and pride still coursing through my veins. From a field of 50, I’d managed to fall over the line (and into knees) in eighth place. It was one of the more stupid things I’d done, but somewhere between teetering at the top of the abyss and crashing at the bottom, a fire had been awakened.
“Living life on the edge is great,” it seemed to say, “but throwing yourself off is even better.”
- What: Cooper’s Hill Cheese Rolling and Wake
- When: Whit Monday/Pentecost Monday every year (between mid-May and early June)
- Where: Coopers Hill, Gloucester, England.
- Getting there: Take the 10 Gold bus from the Gloucester bus depot to the Cross Hands Roundabout (20 minutes), then walk to the hill (25 minutes).
- Entry: Free! No tickets or registrations required, just rock up on the day!