Cooper's Hill looms high by the side of Route A46 in Gloucestershire, just before the blink-and-miss-it sign brings me onto a road of almost comical narrowness. The winding lane runs past a few houses and some rusticating cows. At the foot of the escarpment, a little parking lot with a half dozen cars in it is almost full; tomorrow 2,000 to 5,000 people are expected here for the annual Cooper's Hill Cheese Roll and Wake.
People have been pursuing dairy products down this particular incline in southwestern England for as long as there is memory. "Ask not from where it did spring/For you know it is an old and ancient thing" goes a folk couplet. I start climbing, and it's immediately clear that Cooper's Hill is a misnomer: it's more a cliff. The drop from the summit is 60 degrees; after 300 yards, the slope levels off to a mere 40 degrees. Work this out on your protractor and you'll see that chasing a cheese down this hill has more than a little to do with flinging yourself off a precipice.
Over the centuries, the ritual has changed little. On the Whitsun Bank Holiday Monday (the last Monday of May), four eight-pound wheels of Double Gloucester are rolled. No one ever catches the cheese, which bounces at speeds exceeding 30 mph. Each of the four races is over in seconds; in between, there are uphill heats. As for the dozen or so downhill daredevils, "By the time they're halfway down the hill, they're completely disoriented, they've got no control of their arms and legs, and they can't stop," says David Brown, one of the catchers at the finish line who keep racers from crashing into the crowd, the fence, or the stone cottage at the base of the hill. Ambulance volunteers and paramedics pick up downed participants before the next race begins. There are no handrails on the hill, no rides to the top, no refreshments or souvenir tea towels for sale—nothing to make the ritual spectator-friendly. As for the racers—well, imagine this event in the States. They'd be wearing crash helmets, elbow pads, wrist guards. At Cooper's Hill, you're on your own.
The danger, however, is real—33 racers were injured in 1996; 27 the next year. There was talk of banning the event, and it was canceled in 1998 while safety measures—more catchers, more security people—were put in place.
Anthony Peasley, a retired engineer, has lived on Cooper's Hill and served on the Cheese Rolling Committee for 44 years. His wife, Iris, is the daughter of the former chairman of the CRC and niece of a past MC of the event. They show me a movie, Chasing the Cheese, that documents the 1992 race, when a cheese bounced into the crowd and broke a young girl's arm. In the film, old-timers reminisce (during World War II, a precious morsel was rolled inside a wooden cheese!), and folks speculate about the custom's origin (Phoenician, maybe, or Celtic?) and purpose (fertility rite?ceremony of record?).
The Peasleys have no sympathy for the "rebel rollers," who showed up on Cooper's Hill on Whitmonday the year the races were canceled with an Edam cheese. An Edam! The cheese is the centerpiece of the whole event, whatever it signifies, and the right cheese is essential.
I'm lost getting to Diana Smart's dairy in Churcham. Finally, a publican directs me to the particular tiny-country-lane-with-no-discernible-identifying-markings that I need. For a while, I share a dirt road with some cows before continuing on foot to a cluster of buildings and sheds. A gray-haired lady in white Wellingtons and a little white hat emerges, shakes my hand, and introduces me to her two grandchildren and their cat, Poached Egg.
Smart and her husband were dairy farmers for years, but she didn't start making cheese until 1986, when she was 60. The opportunity came along to buy this dairy and learn the trade, and she couldn't resist. Now her dense, cheddar-like cheeses, hefty disks shaped in Victorian-era presses and aged for up to 18 months, win awards and are sold at Neal's Yard, the London foodie mecca. Mrs. Smart selects the Cooper's Hill Double Gloucester herself. "I try to pick smallish ones"—10 inches or so in diameter. "Otherwise, things could get quite dangerous." I ask if she feels honored at having her handiwork selected for the ancient celebration. She is unimpressed. As one of only two makers of traditional Gloucester cheeses left in Gloucestershire, she has a legitimate claim to the honor, but also a more tangible advantage over mass-produced Double Gloucesters. "Mine are round," she explains. "The others aren't, you see."
On May 31, 1999, bank holiday Monday, the skies lower but don't open. This year the cheese rolls at noon instead of 6 p.m., so racers will have less time to get drunk. Cooper's Hill is tamped down, cordoned off, and patrolled by an immense variety of supervisory types. Everywhere, signs remind you that CHEESE ROLLING IS A POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS ACTIVITY.
Duly warned, the crowd remains resolutely jolly, even while climbing the hill. Here, straining to find a perch, some 1,500 people are hanging on for dear life to slippery roots and wobbly fencing. It takes me half an hour to climb the hill. At the top, I spot a woman who walked up on crutches and a young man with a bewildered expression and a Swedish flag on his backpack. The racers look over the edge, smile nervously, drink beer.
There's a commotion as Rob Seex, a dairy farmer who's been MC for a decade, takes his position at the crest of the hill, grinning in his white coat and garlanded top hat. Anthony Peasley, over the P.A., quiets the crowd. "Keep your eye on the cheese until it's past you," he says. The first wheel is rolled by the widow of a longtime committee member. The racers rise, and most pitch forward immediately, demonstrating what Cheese Rolling Committee chairman Tony Pither told me: "Once they leave their feet, that's it."