The HA Gloucestershire Secondary School/College Prize 2022

In memoriam for a long-standing member, Richard Slessor, your local Historical Association branch ran a competition with a cash prize for a historical submission about Gloucestershire and its history.

We were very pleased to award the prize to Emily Boag, 14 years old, in Year 9 at Balcarras Academy, Cheltenham.

Emily’s award winning submission:

Cheese Rolling!

Cheese Rolling is an event held annually on the Spring Bank Holiday at Coopers Hill in Brockworth. The first written evidence of Cheese Rolling was found in a message written to the Gloucestershire town crier, and even then it seemed evident that this event was an old tradition, and it is believed to be at least six hundred years old. The event was traditionally held by and for the people who lived in Brockworth, but now people from all round the world take part in this historical event.

A 3-4kg Double Gloucester Cheese is rolled down the 180m (200 yards) long hill while participants chase it. The Double Gloucester is protected by a wooden casing round the side, and is decorated with ribbons. Each race is started with a count of 4, with the cheese being released on 3 and the people on 4! The aim is to catch the cheese. However it has a one-second head start and can reach speeds of up to 70mph (110kmph) so the first person over the finishing line at the bottom of the hill wins the cheese. Though controversially the cheese has been caught once. In 2013 when a foam replica was used for safety it did not reach its usual speeds. Australian Caleb Stalder managed to catch the fake cheese and claim victory despite being some way behind the leaders.

There are four races, three male and one female. Each has a different cheese roller – person who releases the cheese. For the 1st men’s race the cheese roller is a doctor. For the 1st woman’s race, the cheese roller is a woman. For the men’s 2nd race, it is a church leader, and for the men’s 3rd race it is an MP or other important person. Before the cheese rolling became unofficial, the chosen cheese rollers would meet at Well Close – a house near the site, for afternoon tea.

Nobody is quite sure of the origins of Cheese Rolling, but it is thought that it may have been a requirement for maintaining grazing rights on the common, allowing farmers to leave their animals to graze on the common land. Another possible origin is that it evolved from an old pagan ritual of rolling bundles of burning brushwood down the hill to represent the birth of the new year. In the pagan tradition, buns, biscuits, and sweets were scattered at the top of the hill. This is reflected in the way onlookers would throw boiled sweets onto the hill after the main event was finished, for kids to run and grab.

Up to the 1980’s it was not just Cheese Rolling happening on Coopers Hill each Spring Bank Holiday. There used to be stalls of food, tug of war, and a maypole that children would dance around. However, all that remains of these traditions are the actual races. I think that it would have been a lovely tradition to carry on and would have made it more of a celebration than a competition.

The Cheese Rolling had to be “officially” stopped in 2009 due to the rising price of insurance needed to cover the event. But what that really meant for the event was that it became “participate at your own risk”. As no one officially runs the cheese rolling any more there is no one to sue if you get injured while participating or as a spectator. However, this does not mean there are no safety measures in place. The local rugby team are hired each year to be “catchers”. They do exactly what their job title says – catch people! When participants reach the bottom of the hill, they have no way to stop themselves and would run into the fence at the bottom causing serious damage. So the rugby team line up at the bottom of the hill and tackle anyone running (or more likely rolling) at full pelt at the fence. Sadly David – the owner if the farm close to Coopers hill – passed away recently but when he was alive the rugby team would have a party at the farm with beers bought by David himself as payment. Each year a St Johns ambulance is hired to stay at the bottom of the hill to treat the inevitable injuries. If someone gets badly injured the rugby team will send a group to climb the hill and carry the person down to the ambulance.

The Cheese Rolling in now held at 1pm as opposed to years ago when it was held at 6pm. This is because spectators and people hoping to participate would gather a little while before the event started and would deem it an acceptable time to drink. This often led to groups of drunk young people causing trouble, so subsequently it was moved to 1pm to limit the amount of drinking pre-event. Though this doesn’t stop people participating whilst drunk, and frankly they would have to be pretty foolish to do it sober.

I myself have only been to the Cheese Rolling once, but my mother’s side of the family have been involved with the organisation for a long time. They own Well Close – the house that each Cheese Roller used to visit before the event. And sometimes they even got to participate! My granny and grandpa have both rolled the cheese on separate years in the 1970’s, and before them, both of my great-grandparents in the 1940’s. And then recently my great-aunt rolled it too! My great grandpa was the chairman of the Cheese Rolling committee, and my great-aunt was the secretary.

This is an amazing photo of my grandpa rolling the Cheese with the Master of Ceremonies, and the 4kg cheese!

In 2001 the Cheese Rolling was cancelled due to the foot and mouth outbreak and the fact that people were not allowed to walk in the countryside. However, in order to keep the tradition going, my Granny, Grandpa, the family who lived on the farm next to the house, and a couple of committee members went to Coopers Hill at 6am (to make sure they weren’t spotted). They set up everything they needed and got going! David – the owner of the farm – rolled the cheese and his daughter, Amelia was the only runner. They only started it about 20m up the hill and rolled a mini Double Gloucester down. Needless to say, Amelia won! They then cut up the cheese had a slice each, before heading back to the house before they were spotted.

My Great Aunt at the unofficial Cheese Rolling of 2003.

Although Cheese Rolling started as a small village tradition, it grew into something which is now famous worldwide. It has been featured on programmes in the US and Australia, and participants travel from around the globe to take part in this age-old Gloucestershire tradition. I’m proud that my family have been a part of this, and I hope that it will be running for many years to come.

Emily Boag,
Balcarras school,
Year 9, 14 years old