Dear Friends and Family,
Of all the adventures I have had this year, racing in the Gloucester Cheese Rolling competition is by far the wildest. Or at least the craziest. And by the craziest, I mean the most dangerous.
Gloucester Cheese Rolling, to fill you in, is a race where participants chase a wheel of Double Gloucester cheese down a very, very steep ledge. The winner is the person who either catches the cheese or makes it down Cooper’s Hill first (and then survives to tell the tale). The approach to the start line has ample warning, “Beware. Cheese Roll. You attend entirely at your own risk,” but every year an ambulance crew carts off a few injured runners and the local rugby team forms a human barrier to literally “catch” out-of-control cheese rollers and prevent them from crashing further down the mountain.
I can still feel the rush of adrenaline and hear the Master of Ceremonies shouting above the crowd, “One to be ready, Two to be steady, Three for the cheese, and Four to GO!” The rest is a blur. I tumbled, flipped, and rolled down Cooper’s “Hill” until I was tackled head on by a giant rugby player. I don’t know how I managed to avoid injury (apart from stinging nettles and small scrapes) but I can say with absolute certainty that I have never been so grateful to be caught by a stranger in my life.
In 2012, the British government teamed up with the Gloucester police department to prohibit cheese rolling– due to the high risk nature of the races and the potential for liability issues that might arise. But their efforts, which famously included a visit to Diana Smart (an 80-year-0ld cheesemaker who has always supplied the cheese wheels for the event), backfired. The news story,”Police threaten granny over cheese rolling hazard,” captured national attention and sparked greater interest in Gloucester’s cheese rolling tradition. This year, race organizers estimated that over 4,000 spectators flocked to Cooper’s Hill, hailing from both local villages and foreign countries. I did not meet any other Americans but I did race against other women from Japan, Canada, France, and Australia.
I am not sure if the biggest draw for most spectators is the cheese, the macho aspect (some guys just love the tumble) or the humor of it all, but I left Gloucester most moved by the spirit I witnessed at the event. We live in a world largely dominated by the fear of liability and so there is something remarkable about a community that will rally to uphold its long-standing traditions (however quirky) and refuse to live in fear of lawsuits. Moreover, the event remains entirely volunteer run, despite the now larger task of clearing the race course, raising money to purchase the cheese wheels and managing the crowd.
The organizers I spoke with after my race added that Gloucester cheese rolling (which they claim is an unbroken tradition, dating back to the 1600s) will continue well into the future. People, it seems, have and always will keep coming, year after year. The winner of the men’s race, Chris Anderson, began cheese rolling when he was a teenager has personally won 16 cheeses over the years. One volunteer summed it up when he said, “If folks turned out for cheese rolling in the midst of World War 1 and even during World War 2 (when food was severely rationed), we aren’t going to stop now.”