09 May 16

Ancient English cheese traditions: Cheese Rolling on Coopers Hill

Coopers Hill Cheese Rolling Event

We British have a reputation for being a little, well…eccentric. Whilst only mad dogs and Englishmen may go out in the midday sun, our little peculiarities also extend to a fondness for food-related activities: drinking large volumes of tea (even during air raids), spreading yeast extract on our toast and, of course, our well-known love of warm beer.

However, it is our cheese traditions which mark the point where we really part company with sanity.

A prime example is the Coopers Hill Cheese Rolling event. Held every spring bank holiday this mind-bogglingly silly (and not to say dangerous) ceremony takes place this year on May 30th, close to Cheddar in Somerset – Home to our own delicious range of mature and vintage cheeses.

The slightly unhinged participants race to catch a 9Ib round of Double Gloucester thrown down the nearly vertical side of Coopers Hill. Like the history of cheese itself, the origins of this peculiar British sporting event are lost in the mists of time.

Some maintain that it was a way of reasserting grazing rights on the common land, whilst others link it with Pagan New Year celebrations or even fertility rites. Whatever the source, the Coopers Hill Cheese Rolling is an annual pastime enjoyed by generations.

Far from being an ‘English-only’ affair, winners in 2013 also included American and Japanese competitors!

Needless to say, racing down a dizzyingly steep hill is not undertaken without some risk and injuries are common. Fleets of ambulances stand ready at the bottom of Coopers Hill, where paramedics, first aiders and volunteers wait to scrape up fallen competitors before ferrying them to local hospitals for treatment of the inevitable dislocations, broken bones and concussions. In the tally of cheese chasing casualties, 1993 is considered a vintage year with over fifteen people injured.

The peril in this most oddball of cheese traditions is not only limited to active participants.  A few years ago one onlooker was unlucky enough to be struck by a wayward cheese bouncing downhill in excess of 70 mph…

The history of cheese chasing on Coopers Hill also makes mention of other customary competitions, held on the same day, during the 1800’s. These included dancing for ribbons, wrestling for a belt, grinning (or ‘gurning’) through a horse’s collar for a cake and the rather violent-sounding ‘shin-kicking’ contest!

Follow the fun (and possible fractures!) and check out the hashtag wall below to track the action using #cheeserolling. Do you have any peculiar cheese traditions in the USA that you’d like to share? Tell us in the comments below!

Picture credit CC Mike Warren.

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