This past week, the fellow who reports on sport for the local public radio station did a tongue-in-cheek piece on the recent cheese rolling event which took place in Gloucestershire, England. His intent was to remind his listeners there were sporting activities abroad in the world beyond the upcoming basketball playoffs. However, his report also reminded me that this was an ancient country sport which had been enjoyed in England for several centuries, including during the years of the Regency.
A slice of cheese rolling lore …
The cheese rolling event which took place in Britain on this past Spring bank holiday may be one of the oldest continuously observed of these curiously English cheese rolling events, but it is not the only one. They were once part of the rowdy celebrations of many regional wakes all over England for centuries. As wakes were slowly subdued, or eliminated, cheese rolling was one of the events which was often done away with due to its many hazards and the coarse, boisterous and inebriated crowds it inevitably drew.
Chasing a large rolling wheel of cheese down a steep hill may have begun in pre-Roman times, though scholars disagree on that as well as many other details surrounding the origins of this unique sport. Most cheese rolls took place in the Spring and some believe the wheel of cheese was considered a symbol of the disk of the sun and thus the cheese rolling was a celebration of the return of longer days. The placement of a maypole on or near a number of the cheese rolling courses tends to add credence to that idea. Additionally, as with many rites of spring, cheese rolling may also have been related to efforts to ensure fertility. Winners of each cheese roll received the wheel of cheese as their prize. It was commonly believed that eating some of this hard-won cheese protected and/or increased the fertility of anyone who consumed it.
This most recent cheese rolling, in the Cotswolds, at Cooper’s Hill, on the outskirts of Gloucester, has been held annually for more than two hundred years, despite the efforts of authorities in recent years to suppress it due to safety concerns. It actually dates back much further than that, but the event had been allowed to lapse in the latter years of the eighteenth century. It was revived as part of the local wake festivities at the turn of the nineteenth century and had become an annual Spring event by the beginning of the Regency. From its revival it was held every year on Whit Monday, which had been taken as a Spring holiday by most of the middle and lower classes in England for centuries.
Cooper’s Hill is a particularly steep hill, down which a large (seven to ten pound) wheel of semi-hard Double Gloucester cheese was allowed to roll as the many contestants raced, or more accurately tumbled, down after it. The rules required that the cheese be given a bit of a head start over its pursuers to add interest to the proceedings. Therefore, a "guest roller," usually a local dignitary, would release the cheese from the brow of the hill at a signal from the Master of Ceremonies, who also gave the signal to the contestants to start after the rolling cheese. The signals for both the release of the cheese wheel and the start of the race itself were part of a traditional rhyme:
One to be ready,
Two to be steady,
Three to prepare, (cheese is released)
Four to be off. (Contestants rush down the hill)
When the last line of the rhyme was spoken, the contestants plunged headlong down an extremely steep, grassy slope which runs over 300 yards, tumbling over one another in pursuit of the cheese wheel rolling away ahead of them. On rare occasions, someone actually caught the cheese before it rolled down the hill. But in most cases, the winner was the person who reached the bottom of the hill first, regardless of whether or not they had laid hold of the cheese wheel before they got there.
Cheese rolling was as a dangerous activity, made more so by the many contestants who had imbibed freely before they began their frantic cheese chase. During the Regency, the event took place in the early evening, giving contestants ample time to consume plenty of ale, hard cider and other alcoholic beverages at the refreshment stalls which were part of any wake, before they climbed to the top of the hill to plunge after the wheel of cheese rolling down the steep, slippery slope. There were many injuries at each cheese roll, to both participants and spectators, though they were seldom fatal. And those numbers were increased by the fact that there were multiple cheese rolls as part of the wake festivities. During the Regency, there was at least one cheese roll at Cooper’s Hill which was restricted to women only. It is said to have been very popular with male spectators.
There is another cheese rolling event which once more takes place at Randwick, another small village in Gloucestershire. It was regularly held during the Regency, but was banned near the end of the nineteenth century, only to be successfully revived in the 1970s. This event takes place on the first Sunday in May and is rather more sedate than the Cooper’s Hill cheese rolls. First, at the local church, during a special service, three Double Gloucester cheese wheels are blessed, it is believed to ward off evils spirits. The three cheese wheels are then rolled slowly around the church in an anti-clockwise direction (counter-clockwise for us Yanks). After the circumnavigation of the church, one of the cheese wheels is cut up and shared with those in attendance. It is believed that eating this cheese will also ensure personal fertility. The two remaining cheese wheels are kept until the following weekend when they are rolled and chased down the hillside at Well Leaze (pasture) as part of the Randwick Wap festival.
A brief mention here of a cheese rolling event which takes place in the village of Stilton, famous for its own type of cheese. However, I can find no evidence of the existence of this cheese rolling event before the middle of the last century. It appears to have been initiated as a way to draw visitors to the village after it had been bypassed by the main motor-ways. This roll takes place between two inns in the area, rather than a pell mell plunge down a steep hill. It is now an annual Spring event in the village of Stilton, but as it did not exist during the Regency, I will say no more about it.
Both the Randwick and the Cooper’s Hill cheese rolling events are holdovers into this century of an age-old English country sport. Both were originally included as part of a local festival or wake and were popular with the lower classes. During the Regency, country folk would have participated in either of these cheese rolls, as well as many similar events all across England. Most sport among these people was rough and rowdy, so they would not have considered cheese rolling more dangerous than other sports in which they engaged. The bragging rights attendant upon the win were of some consequence to many contestants, but the prize of a large wheel of cheese was also an important consideration. By the Regency, very few people took seriously the "fertility protection" supposedly conferred upon them by the winning and eating of the cheese. But for those with limited incomes and/or large families, the prize of a large wheel of protein-rich cheese meant quality food on the table for many days. It was a lure which could tempt a most sensible man, or woman, to risk life and limb for a chance to claim that valuable prize.
A cheese rolling event seems to have much potential as part of the plot line of a Regency novel. Perhaps the heroine has fallen on hard times, with perhaps one or more small children for which she must provide. She might participate in a women-only cheese roll in the hope of providing nourishing food for her small charges. Her entry might bring her to the attention of a local landowner officiating at the cheese roll. On a lark, a group of young gentlemen might participate in a cheese roll while attending a wake at a country village. One of them, the hero, or maybe his younger brother or cousin, might be injured and taken in by a compassionate local lady. Who knows where a rollicking cheese roll might lead?