Of all the esoteric traditions and rituals that take place across the UK, the Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling contest is perhaps the best known. Try as we might, we can’t think of another ritual of this nature that has had an episode of a Netflix series devoted to it. Thousands of Youtube videos endeavour to make sense of it – “World’s Stupidest Competion” has had 23 million views – including a three-minute overview by the National Geographic.
It is everything the 21st-century internet loves: extreme sports, injuries, quality foodstuffs, and a massive plateful of WTF
You might say that this is the only traditional custom from these parts ever to have gone viral – repeatedly – and it’s not hard to see why. The Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling contest is everything the 21st-century internet loves: extreme sports, injuries, quality foodstuffs, and a massive plateful of WTF.
Approximately 5,500 people search Google for information on cheese rolling each month, many asking fairly specific questions. Using an SEO tool called Semrush, we’ve listed the main questions and answered them below. Look no further: here’s your complete guide to Gloucester cheese rolling, Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling, or the cheese rolling contest – whichever you’ve decided to search for today.
In 2023, the Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling contest will take place on Monday, May 29th.
In this article you’ll find…
- What is the point?
- When did Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling begin?
- Has it ever been banned?
- What does it feel like to be a Cooper’s Hill cheese chaser?
- Do people get injured?
- How can I enter?
- What are the rules?
- When is the Gloucester cheese rolling event?
- Where is the Gloucester Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling event?
What is the point of the Gloucester cheese rolling contest?
“Traditions are a way of speaking to our ancestors in a language that they created,” pronounces the surprisingly profound Netflix narrator, before spoiling things slightly by over-egging the pudding: “When you participate in a tradition, you are casting a spell that lets you talk directly to a bygone era”.
In the same documentary, unofficial organiser, Sara Stevens, says, “We get called crazy, we get called unique, which is great. Fantastic. I just think the villagers love it. And it’s traditional. It’s very old, and not many things in this world are still kept by communities that are very old. People just want to have a go, and to say they’ve done it.”
In short, ‘the point’ seems to be simply to keep the tradition alive, although the participants themselves may have their own demons to contend with.
When did Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling begin?
Jem Wakeman, current Master of Ceremonies, has said, “It’s one of those things that you can’t find a great deal about. Some say 1700s, some say 1600s.” Sara Stevens thinks it’s, “thousands of years”. Cheese rolling world champion, Chris Anderson, believes it’s an old Pagan ritual: “They used to chuck a cheese down the hill to bring good luck for the harvest.”
Others believe that it has to do with a local barrel-making company that rolled their barrels down the hill to test their strength. Significantly, the barrel-making company was called Cooper’s, but nobody can explain why they might have changed the object from a barrel to a cheese, or why so many people chase it. Local cheesemaker, Rod Smart, sums it up succinctly: “Make up a story you want.”
In 2006, the BBC interviewed Jean Jeffries, said to be living on Cooper’s Hill for 25 years. “We have ‘family’ recollections recorded which take us back to the mid-1700’s,” she explained. “The story from then describes it as an event that was ongoing even at that time – no mention of it just starting.”
However, folk historian, Steve Roud, believes that the cheese rolling race is, “all that remains of the Cooper’s Hill wake, which was once held on top of the hill every Whit Monday and included many other standard features of annual gatherings, such as wrestling, shin-kicking, gurning, smock races, a maypole, and plenty to eat and drink. The cheese rolling itself, far from being an ancient ritual, is therefore simply the sole survivor of an activity that routinely took place at fairs and wakes up and down the country – providing, of course, that they had a suitable hill nearby.”
Historical documents referring to the contest include a message written to a town crier in 1826, and a description in the Folk-Lore journal, 1912, that describes a free-for-all that seems mostly unchanged in the century since the words were written down.
“The Master of Ceremonies, Mr W. Brookes, who has officiated in this capacity for over 30 years, appeared wearing, as usual, a brown top-hat which his parents won in a dancing competition many years ago, and with a chemise over his coat. He stood by the maypole and repeatedly called the crowd to form ‘the alley’ down the slope. The course being clear, the Vicar opened the ball by sending the first ‘cheese’ (a disc of wood wrapped in pink paper) rolling down the hill. Helter-skelter ran nine young men after it, and most of them pitch-polled. The first to secure the disc, stopped at the bottom by a hedge, had to trudge uphill again, and there exchange it for the prize cheese.”
Has it ever been banned?
As with many traditions that have found themselves subject to health and safety rules, the event was cancelled by local authorities in 1999, and again in 2009. However, as one of the participants says in the Netflix documentary, having freshly run his own improvised cheese slalom, “You can cancel it officially, but it will always go on like this.”
Since 2011, it has been run in an unofficial capacity by Sara Stevens, who argues that it is ‘official’, simply because it continues to happen at the same place, same time, every year. Even the pandemic failed to hold it back entirely. In 2020 and 2021, nobody chased the cheese down Cooper’s Hill, but the truckle was rolled anyway, just to keep the tradition alive.
What does it feel like to be a Cooper’s Hill cheese chaser?
Unlike many other traditions, the answer to this question is best answered by the younger people in the village. After all, you won’t find too many old-timers hurling themselves from the top of Cooper’s Hill.
“When you have a landscape like this, it’s like a playground,” says 31-year-old, four-times champion cheese chaser and genuine superwoman, Florence Early. “We save it all for the kids and it’s such a shame. We unlearn how to have fun. The hill is just another landscape to tackle, and I’m into that. And when you see that hill, if you’re the type of person who likes that kind of thing, you can’t not want to run down it.”
Florence Early first ran in the contest when she was 17, although it was clearly part of her destiny from a much younger age. “Everyone who came to school with a cast on… I thought that was the coolest thing that anyone had. I really wanted one, so I always used to go and jump higher, stumble down things faster… In my mind, I thought that if I broke something then I’d get my cast. And it never happened.”
Jem Wakeman says, “If you’d never jumped out of a plane with a parachute before, it’d be like that, wouldn’t it? But you haven’t got a parachute. You’ve just got a real steep hill.”
Florence Early is more specific. “The feeling would be like if somebody took you from the waist and then dump-tackled you down, and then did it again and again before you’ve caught your breath. It’s that feeling. Your whole body is off the ground and you’re coming down.”
Do people get injured?
Injuries are many and fairly varied, although no record appears to exist of anything particularly lethal. In her 10+ years as unofficial organiser, Sara Stevens says the worst injury she’s ever seen was a foot reversed – the toes facing in the opposite direction. Injuries of this nature are part and parcel of the falling scrum. As Jem Wakeman points out: “Every sport has its dangers. You can get smacked in the head by a cricket ball, playing cricket, can’t you?”
In her decade-long experience as a cheese chaser, Florence Early has only suffered one severe injury. “I thought my shoulder was just dislocated and I thought they’d just shove it back in,” she remembers. “But it turned out it wasn’t my shoulder. It was my collar bone. The reality of that is that it can’t be fixed and it’s still dislocated, and it will be for the rest of my life.”
World record holder, Chris Anderson, has won an extraordinary 23 cheeses. This former soldier has an athletic physique and a technique that is not dissimilar to the Chumbawumba song: he falls down, and he gets up again, and then he keeps on running, leaving a trail of grubby people bum-shuffling in his wake. Over the years he has broken an ankle, concussed himself, torn his calf muscle and bruised his kidneys. But his suffering has been worth it. Nobody else can call themselves the world’s all-time undisputed cheese chasing champion. That’s all his.
How can I enter?
Entering the Gloucester cheese rolling contest couldn’t be easier. All you have to do is show up, walk to the top of Cooper’s Hill and take your place. Thanks to its internet-fuelled notoriety, people turn up to the event from countries all over the world. Winners have come from Canada, Australia, USA, New Zealand and Nepal. Naturally, entrants need to be aware that the responsibility for their safety lands squarely on their own shoulders – much like their hips are wont to do should they take part.
What are the rules?
As we have seen with other traditional sports such as Shrovetide Football, rules are not for the brave of heart. However, participants should be mindful of a few things.
- The race is over just over 100 metres long.
- Cooper’s Hill has an average gradient of over 45°.
- The wheel of cheese is 8lbs (3.6kg) of double Gloucester, and it tends to travel at speeds of over 80mph.
- Wrapping the cheese is a ritual performed by the older inhabitants of the village.
- There are three men’s races and one women’s race each year. Locals believe this is because, “men are three times stupider than women”.
- The winner is not the person to catch the cheese, which would be almost impossible to do. You win the Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling competition by being the first person over the line at the bottom of the hill.
- The chasers move at quite a clip. Sara Stevens is on record as saying that Chris Anderson descends Cooper’s Hill faster than Usain Bolt ever ran the 100m.
- The cheese gets a one-second head start on its pursuers.
- Rather than “ready, steady, go”, the Master of Ceremonies traditionally began the races with the following rhyme:
One to be ready!
Two to be steady!
Three to prepare!
And four to be off!
When is the Gloucester cheese rolling event?
The cheese rolling race takes place on the Spring Bank Holiday (usually the last Monday in May) every year. In 2023, it will take place on Monday, May 29th.
Where is the Gloucester Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling event?
The clue is in the name. You’ll find it on Cooper’s Hill, just outside Brockworth in Gloucestershire. Set your map, for Coopers Hill, Brockworth, GL3 4SB.
All participant quotes used in this article come from the 2020 Netflix Documentary: We Are the Champions. The historical information in our Customs Uncovered series comes from several books, most commonly The English Year (Steve Roud, 2006), and The Stations of the Sun (Ronald Hutton, 1996).