Part 7: Perhaps We Were a Bit Thick

Still, some of the injuries are just as bad as they look.

And cheese chasers aren't the only ones at risk; bystanders have also been hurt—by out-of-control runners… and bouncing cheeses.

Rob Seex does his best to make sure the VIPs who roll the eight-pound Double Gloucesters aim for a midpoint at the bottom of the hill, which, whether by coincidence or not, lies right next to the media's bullpen.

"This year there was a camera stand there, so I said aim for that," the emcee smiles.

"But if the cheese hits a bump in the wrong place, it can take off and it can go well up in the sky."

Iris remembers dodging the cheeses as a child.

"Nowadays everybody gets a bit paranoid about the cheese. But in the old days, you didn't seem to worry about it—perhaps it was just that we were a bit thick; we didn't realise then that it would hurt!"

And then some.

By the time they hit the bottom, the cheese wheels are spiralling unpredictably at up to 70 miles an hour.

"That's gotta be a bit of a whack," says Jason, whose mother was hit in the leg by a hurtling cheese. "She had a humongous bruise and couldn't walk for a couple of weeks."

More recently, a spectator banged his head and fell 100 feet down the slope after trying to dodge a wayward cheese.

Fortunately, he didn't suffer the same fate as a fabled bystander from long ago.

His epitaph read:

Here lies Billy, if you please
Hit in the stomach with a cheese
Cheese is wholesome fayre, they say

* * *
©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 6: Just Like Lemmings

In recent decades, the injuries have increased along with the speed.

"They didn't go so fast in the old days," Iris maintains, recalling a couple of champions from the 1940s and 1950s who never fell down.

"It was much nicer to watch because there was more of an art to it. They just throw themselves like lemmings now, don't they."

Morbid observers reckon that a serious mishap is only a matter of time. After all, on Cooper's Hill, a "breakneck pace" could mean just that.

The committee behind the Darwin Awards, which honour "those who improved our gene pool by removing themselves from it in really stupid ways", has already granted cheese rolling an honourable mention.

"We fondly anticipate a cheese-chasing Darwin Award nominee in the near future," the committee said.

To prevent that from happening, the cheese roll has the cave rescuers and the St. John Ambulance on hand.

In any given year, they can expect at least a dozen casualties and sometimes more than twice that number, with injuries ranging from grazed knees to suspected spinal trauma.

Then there are the photogenic wounds like head cuts, which bleed a lot and make the hill look like a battle scene, yielding headlines such as CARNAGE ON COOPER'S HILL.

The casualties tend to increase during dry years, when the sun bakes the slope rock hard.

In 1978, a runner was knocked unconscious for an hour, and a winner sprained his ankle and lost a front tooth: "it snapped off clean," the newspaper reported, alongside of him posing with a gap-toothed grin, the very picture of a local yokel.

To date, though, the worst wounds have been fractures.

"You get broken legs, broken arms, broken ribs, broken collarbones—collarbones are fairly common," the emcees says matter-of-factly, "but a lot of injuries look worse than what they are."

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Part 5: You Need to Have a Few Drinks

To conquer their fear, most cheese chasers fall back on Dutch courage.

Like wine and cheese, drinking and cheese rolling have gone together for as long as anyone can remember.

"I don't think they get pissed up just for the sake of it," one rescuer says. "You need to have a few drinks to get yourself into a state where you'd actually throw yourself off the top."

For many runners, the anaesthetic of choice is locally made farmhouse scrumpy, although connoisseurs frown on chasing under the influence.

"I always feel that if they've had too much to drink, they'd never win a cheese," Iris says. "They might get to the bottom eventually, but they've got to have a certain amount of clarity in the mind to win one."

That said, drinking may help them stay in one piece.

"It does help if you're totally legless—you relax when you fall," another local says.

Apart from an apocryphal story about a runner dropping dead centuries ago, cheese rolling has yet to produce a serious casualty, defined as a paralysing injury or, God forbid, a fatality.

For the organisers, injuries are a sore point, so to speak. They accuse the media—particularly the local papers—of sensationalising the event by focusing on casualties.

"That's the only reason why they report on this event because they like to get as many as they can," grumbles Tony Peasley, Iris' husband. "They're so unremittingly negative about the cheese rolling."

In years when the body count is particularly high—more than a dozen or so—the papers print close-ups of bloodstained competitors lying prostrate on the hill.

For hardened veterans, though, gashed heads and broken bones are inevitable.

"That's the whole essence of the cheese rolling," argues Tony. "People know that there is an element of risk—there has to be. Otherwise… why roll cheeses down the hill and chase after them?"

Why indeed? For injuries, like alcohol, have always been a part of cheese rolling.

The first photos of the event capture an Edwardian casualty in progress: "The leading competitor has pitched right over, and can be seen halfway down standing on his head," the caption explains.

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Part 4: You Could Break Your Neck

But Iris Peasley's view may be closer to the truth.

"We're a bit chicken, I think," she chuckles. "We know the hill, and we know the sort of dangers and whatnot."

As a girl, she had wanted to chase a cheese, but her father warned her she'd break her neck.

By the time she was old enough to make up her own mind, she decided not to tempt fate.

Like the others on the hill, she leaves cheese chasing to youngsters from surrounding villages who have something to prove.

Every year, Jason Kotwica and his friends trudge up from Brockworth to run in the race. "If you live locally, this is like the main event in the whole year, innit, really. We love it, because it is like, our Christmas day."

Despite his Polish surname—his grandfather came over during the War—the 22-year-old is Brockworth born and bred.

A fence builder by trade, he sports a shaven head, a goatee and gold hoops in both ears.

Like his fellow buccaneers, he's been chasing cheeses since he was in his mid-teens. He reckons it makes so-called extreme sports look tame.

"Oh, I've done bungee jumping," he says dismissively. "That's not anything compared to cheese rolling. Because when you do bungee jumping, you know it's all organised and it's all safe. But when you run this, you could break your neck."

A few years back, a daredevil came all the way from Australia—or was it New Zealand?—to add cheese chasing to his list of accomplishments.

"And he came here, and everybody was like, 'Ooh, there's that mad guy who does everything around the world!' And he had elbow pads on, kneepads, helmet—everything." But it still wasn't enough. "He looked down there and said, 'No, I ain't doin' it.'"

The memory still makes Jason laugh: "'Noo, I ain't doin' it.'"

©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 3: A Grassy Cliff

When you look down, though, the ground suddenly disappears.

Rather than a gradual incline, the hill drops away at a near 70-degree angle, then quickly shifts to 50 degrees, then plunges again, then levels out, then falls one last time before abruptly flattening out—leaving runners only a few yards to stop before crashing into a cottage fence at the bottom.

The 250-yard racecourse is a short, sharp drop full of dips, bulges, and any number of perils, seen or unseen: long, ankle-twisting grass… patches of slick, decomposing leaves… gravel outcrops lurking under the turf… tufted islands jutting up unexpectedly… eroded foot-traps masked by grass… not to mention big fat Roman snails and the odd duck's nest.

In short, the hill is a natural obstacle course containing just about every impediment Mother Nature could come up with, making it difficult to walk down, let alone run down.

"It's nearly a grass cliff," says Rob Seex, the current master of ceremonies. "It's not quite vertical, but it is steep."

So steep, in fact, that the runners don't dare start the race standing; instead, they sit at the starting line before flinging themselves off the ledge.

There are three men's races and one for women each year. No one ever catches the cheese—the winner is simply the first runner to hit the bottom of the hill.

"The trick is to try and stay on your feet," advises reigning champ Steve Brain.

GPA Images
But very few runners manage that feat. "People literally fly through the air," Seex says. "It just looks insane. You will be amazed that people aren't more seriously hurt than they are."

To clear the casualties, paramedics rely on special rescue equipment, abseiling down the hillside to reach the fallen runners, then strapping them into stretchers and lowering them to the bottom.

For several years, the only group that would perform this service was a team of potholing fanatics—people who crawl into dark crevices for fun. Surprisingly, though, not even these hardcore cavers have ever chased the cheese.

What's more, not even the organisers do it.

Only a few inhabitants of Cooper's Hill (population: 39) have ever braved the event.

Most of the organisers say they're too busy running things to actually run in the race. The emcee claims his height and a back injury prevented him from competing.

"I'm six-foot-two, much too tall. You've got to be nice and short and five foot wide."

©J.R. Daeschner

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Part 2: Sheer Lunacy and Danger

For sheer lunacy and danger, few events can rival cheese rolling.

If you've never seen it, the ancient Gloucestershire tradition doesn't sound that daunting: a cheese is flung down a hill, and dozens of men chase it.

Initially, I envisaged a wheel of cheese trundling down a long, grassy slope at a leisurely pace. Of course, some runners might take a tumble—that would explain the injuries every year—but they were probably reckless or just plain clumsy.

In my naïveté, I even imagined that I might join in the fun.

But then I saw Cooper's Hill. From the bottom, the racecourse doesn't seem that dangerous; from the top, it looks suicidal.

No matter how much you've heard about it, no matter how many times you've seen pictures of it, nothing can prepare you for the full jaw-dropping impact of seeing the slope in person.

Matt Cardy/Getty Images on

The first known photograph of the event, back in 1911, assured readers: "This gives no idea of the excessive steepness of the hill."

And even if you've seen this "excessive steepness" once, the fearsome plunge still comes as a shock when you visit again.

Cooper's Hill marks the midpoint between Gloucestershire's three contrasting regions: the Vale of Severn, the Forest of Dean and the Cotswolds.

Like its hilly counterparts, it's more of a mound than a mountain, not even 900 feet above sea level.

As you're driving on the motorway—or the Roman-built Ermin Way—Cooper's Hill stands out as the one with the maypole on top and a grass ramp shaved through the trees.

A narrow lane leads you up the side of the hill to the cluster of cottages at the foot of the racecourse, while walkers on the Cotswold Way will stumble across it about halfway through their 100-mile trek.

Standing on the summit, you can see for miles across the uneasy mix of town, country and motorway that makes up the Severn Vale: industrial Brockworth crowding the foot of the hill, the spires of Gloucester Cathedral a few miles away, Cheltenham huddled in the distance, the jagged Malverns to the northwest, and the Black Mountains looming just over the border in Wales.

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Part 1: Fear, Freedom and the Fromage Fray

Chapter Two from True Brits


For Iris Peasley and the other guardians of the event, there was never any question of cancelling it altogether.

No one said as much; it was more of an unspoken conviction: Who are we to stop it?

For that matter, who were the county council—or the media—or any other critics to stop a centuries-old tradition that was bigger than all of them put together?

Iris had lived on Cooper's Hill for all but three of her 74 years—so long, in fact, that she could remember all the emcees from the past century.

Even the cottage she and her husband lived in had links to the tradition, having been the home of Bill Brookes, master of ceremonies for more than 50 years starting in the late 1800s.

For Brookes, the event was so important he chose to be buried in his top hat; another emcee had his ashes spread on the hilltop. Iris' uncle had also served in the post, and her father had been chairman of the organising committee for many years.

So many of her friends and family members had worked so hard to carry on the tradition that she would have felt deeply responsible—guilty, even—for letting them down.

And in the past year, the organisers had lost not one but two members, including Iris' own sister. Feeling duty-bound and bloody-minded, the committee resolved, at the same meeting where they cancelled the public spectacle, to hold a clandestine race on the usual date—only this event would take place just after dawn, while their critics were sleeping.

So at six a.m. on that chilly Bank Holiday Monday in May 1998, Iris, her husband, and a group of unlikely rebels trudged out to the hill to defy the handwritten, black-and-white sign planted in the middle of the slope:


Photo by Jean Jefferies, from her book,
Cheese Rolling in Gloucestershire
* * *
©J.R. Daeschner

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