Saturday

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 Boston.com

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.

©J.R. Daeschner

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