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13 November 2014

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Cheese Rolling

You are in: Gloucestershire > Our Crazy County > Cheese Rolling > Cheese Rolling: A brief history

Competitor chasing the cheese on Cooper's Hill in 2006 (Photo: Carl De Souza, AFP Getty image)

Chasing cheese in 2006

Cheese Rolling: A brief history

As part of a NCTJ Journalism course, Martin Holmes from Cheltenham decided to take a look at the the history of the Cheese Rolling on Cooper's Hill. Here's what he found out.

Quote mark

"One to be ready!"
"Two to be steady!"
"Three to prepare!"
"and four to be off!"

And, after that countdown from the Master of Ceremonies, the contestants hurl themselves down the incredibly steep slope on Cooper's Hill after a 7-8Ib Double Gloucester cheese.

Only in Gloucestershire...

It is believed that the tradition could have been started by the Phoenicians, who inhabited South-Western parts of Britain before the Roman invasion of 54BC, by the Ancient Britons, or by the Romans themselves.

It may, however, seem unlikely to many that a culture famed for fine clothing, dining and art could hold the origins of such an event.

Tradition

The first written evidence of Cheese Rolling was found in a message to the Gloucester Town Crier in 1826, though it is clear that the event was already an old tradition even at this date.

Jean Jeffries, who has lived on the hill for 25 years, can trace the event back even further.

"We have 'family' recollections recorded which take us back to the mid-1700's," she said.

"The story from then describes it as an event that was ongoing even at that time – no mention of it just starting.

"This is a small community, the nearest village is about a mile away, so it was probably a very local event."

Fertility rite

In the past, the Cheese Rolling was only part of the annual Cooper's Hill wake.

Other events included such delights as 'wrestling for a belt', 'grinning (through a horse's collar) for a cake', and even 'shin-kicking'.

Today, however, the only other event to accompany the Cheese Rolling and uphill races is the children's 'scramble' for sweets.

Pieces of cake or biscuit are known to have been used in the past, probably as a fertility rite, in the hope of producing a good harvest.

Jean's husband, Richard, is a committee member for the event and, living on the hill, non-involvement was not really an option for the couple.

Monster

"We have no real choice!" said Jean.

"However, when I took early retirement from teaching, with a shiny new computer, I set out to produce a leaflet to give out on the day.

"After 10 years, that leaflet was finally published as a 10-chapter book called 'Cheese Rolling in Gloucestershire'."

Jean also set up a website, cheese-rolling.co.uk, which now receives over 1000 hits a day.

"It has become quite a monster," she said.

Locality

"I expect the hits to rise to 8000-9000 per day by the end of the month judging by last year's stats."

Cooper's Hill is a community of just 26 dwellings, so the annual event really does touch the whole locality.

As well as his role on the organizing committee, Jean's husband also acts as public address system speaker, media spokesperson, as well as preparing the hill for the race.

Her son is a 'catcher' at the bottom of the hill, as any contestant who reaches the finish still on their feet will be travelling far too quickly to be able to stop themselves.

This year's event will take place on Monday 25th May 2009 with the first race beginning at Midday.

'Throw-yourself-off-the-top'

Over 200 people are expected to take part throughout the day but, even with all her involvement down the years, Jean still is not sure exactly what possesses the contestants to take part.

"Pass!" she said.

"I think maybe it was a 'rite of passage' for local lads who practiced all year and treated the hill with some respect, knowing the route to take.

Unquote mark

"It has only been a throw-yourself-off-the-top event in more recent history."

This article is an external contribution and expresses a personal opinion, not the views of the BBC.

last updated: 26/05/2009 at 17:01
created: 07/05/2009

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