Cooper's Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake

In England, broken bones all for the sake of cheese

Aside from his electric blue hair, there are few parts of Dave Munro’s body that aren’t covered in mud. The entire back of his jeans is caked with an unfortunate hue of brown, and his hands look as if they had been tilling a field for days. A gash slowly seeps blood from his left arm, which cradles a bottle of Stella Artois cider that will soon nurse the pain.

Actually and rather remarkably, Munro, who hails from Perth, Scotland, isn’t all that bent out of sorts, but you should see the other guys.

The hill he stands on, a nearly vertical, 600-foot tall behemoth, is littered with dozens of thrill-seeking masochists who are strung out in all sorts of shapes.

Camera crews crowd around a man with his teeth furiously sunk into a cloth as a few men  call them Sherpas this side of Mt. Everest  escort him down after he breaks his leg.

There are murmurs that someone might be unconscious.

A little while earlier a woman was carried off for a broken neck after doing a somersault, after somersault, after somersault, after …

It’s May 26, a bank holiday in the United Kingdom, and I’m in Gloucestershire, England for the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake, a sleepy-town tradition dating back to the 19th century.

Today, just as in the past couple of hundreds of years, dozens of competitors play a game of chance roulette in which they will take an adrenaline-fueled plummet down one of the steepest hills southwestern England has to offer  and there’s no pretty or delicate way to do it.

Some run, some slide, some tumble, but no matter their technique of choice, all face imminent doom. Everyone will be bounced around just like the ball of the game they have signed over their fates to.

What will they incur? Some bruises? A good head-bang? An obliterated pelvis?

Luck isn’t exactly on their side. Though the number of injuries has fallen in the past few years, the stakes are still high. 1997 had the most injuries, 33.

If it’s not broken or dislocated, something will get bruised.

But you see, there’s this cheese. And while most children dream of becoming the next Wimbledon champ or Manchester United’s next superstar, hopes of snagging that coveted roll of homegrown savory Double Gloucester are just as valid in this town.

(There’s a whole crop of boys and girls under the age of 14 who compete in uphill races in preparation for perhaps one day taking on the downhill competition.)

Sure, the payoff isn’t that great and the reasoning behind competing isn’t always the most well thought out, yet tradition persists.

“I was drunk one night, and I saw it on the internet,” Munro said. “I can’t lie.”

To the curious outsider, the event doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

“I was drunk one night, and I saw it on the internet. I can’t lie.”

Competitors risk snapping their limbs and necks in two as they make a disorderly attempt to catch  and win  an elusive roll of cheese that isn’t in the best shape after its bumpy, muddy descent.

Even to locals, the whole thing is head-scratching, but that doesn’t stop them from watching. They turn up in droves every year for reasons even they have difficulty explaining.

Just ask Paul Templeman, a resident of Brockworth, why he’s been dozens of times since he was a child. He can only offer up this sentiment: “It’s local. It’s just a bit of fun.”

As for why he has never competed once despite all the times he’s been, Templeman’s answer is much clearer. “‘Cause I’m not that stupid,” he says with a playful huff.

But after all, if there were no competitors, there’d be nothing worth watching.

An estimated 5,000 people attended this year’s event, leaving me to wonder where exactly all the locals were hiding when I arrived the day prior.

A fortuitously bleak sky greeted me upon my arrival at Gloucester’s bus station in the central part of the village that Sunday.

My 45-minute trek on foot to my hotel was not the most scenic of routes. With its abandoned business parks and parking lots overrun by weeds, Gloucestershire initially struck me as the sort of area where the local kids are forced to make their own fun.

Aside from Storage King and a BP service station, where I combed my way through aisles of soggy quiche and oily hummus that I lived off of for three days, my hotel was in the middle of nowhere.

The village of Gloucester has a few bragging rights. Scenes of the first, second and sixth Harry Potter movies were filmed in Gloucester Cathedral. One of its churches, St. Oswald’s Priory, dates back to the 880s or 890s. Other than that, it isn’t exactly the first place that comes to mind when you think of England. 

But for one reason or another, the cheese-rolling competition has given the city an international pull, with some people traveling as far as Australia wishing for a taste of victory.

Taste of victory
A spectator poses with one of the event’s famous rolls of Double Gloucester cheese.

All the recent attention has local authorities cracking down on the tradition.

What once was an official town event until 2010 has recently been viewed as reckless debauchery that caters to outlaws   or freedom fighters, depending on how you look at them.

Police have even warned local cheese-makers who provide the dairy for the race that they might be liable for any injuries that occur.

Competitors and spectators have their unique reasons for skirting around the road closures, jumping the fences, ignoring the warning signs and enduring a long hike up several other hills before Cooper’s Hill.

But one thing remains clear: There’s no love for the establishment here.

“(I do it for) tradition, fun and a disregard for our government who says kids can’t play conkers anymore,” says hometown competitor Leighton Grealis, referring to the popular but increasingly banned British school-yard game that involves whacking chestnuts tied to string against one another.

At one point during the competition, police helicopters began to fly overhead, temporarily disrupting the festivities. Whether the spectators knew the helicopter belonged to the police or mistook it for that of a TV station, everyone began to wave to it as a soared above, a cheeky British salute as if to say “catch us if you can.”

Just 7 minutes prior to the event’s kick-off at noon, it began to drizzle in true English fashion, softening the rugged land just slightly for the bums about to go down it.

The event consists of five main races: three downhill men’s races, a downhill women’s race, a free-for-all downhill race. There are also three uphill races, two of which are for children.

Shortly after a loud proclamation made on the megaphone, a tiny blur of white can be seen falling down the hill. It’s the 8-pound cheese striped with red and blue and a reminder to the competitors about how much more they have left to go.

Then a couple dozen men come barrelling down after it. Each bump they encounter on the hill is met with an uproar of laughter from the crowd. There goes a man dressed as Axl Rose. Did I just see Super Mario? There’s no web that can save Spider-Man here. Once you’re in the race, you’re in it until the rocky end.

Spider-Man
Spider-Man makes an appearance at Cooper’s Hill, but isn’t so graceful without his webs.

Any techniques? “No, no. Just run like hell,” Munro says. “Run like hell.”

Munro joked after the race that he had been tossing miniature rolls of Babybel cheese down his home’s staircase to practice the week prior. At the end of the day’s festivities, he kindly handed me one.

But in order to win the race, you must finish it. While it’s impossible to look graceful, those who fare well have a more calculated approach: Pick up speed when you can, slack where needed.

It’s certainly a talent the hometown competitors have picked up on. All but one of the races was won by a competitor from Gloucestershire.

People on the sidelines almost seem to be suffering sympathy pains for those they watch. With each blow a competitor takes comes a collective gasp from the audience.

“You throw yourself down and hope for the best.”

As a means of self-preservation, some competitors won’t allow themselves to process what is happening during the race.

“I was trying not to think, to be fair,” Grealis says. “You throw yourself down and hope for the best.”

Maybe we think too much before we do things. Maybe the best traditions are the ones that don’t make any sense at all.

As for blue-haired Munro, would he do it again? “Of course.”

He still needs to catch that cheese.

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