Those Crazy Brits

What can you do with cheese? It sounds like a silly question doesn' t it? Eat it of course, or maybe chop it, grate it, grill it, put it on a pizza......What about play a sport with it? Pardon? Play a what? Yes, the eccentric British have done it again and taken something remarkably ordinary and done something completely unusual with it.

In a small village in the county of Gloucestershire at the end of May each year, the annual cheese-rolling takes place. It is basically a race, the object of which is to chase a piece of cheese. How on earth can you chase a piece of cheese, I can hear you ask. The stuff usually sits patiently in the fridge waiting to be thrown into a sandwich; it doesn' t run around the kitchen trying to avoid capture! Well, the answer is that it isn' t any old cheese that is used. Gloucestershire is famous for its unique and tasty cheeses and the particular type used in cheese-rolling is circular, about 45cm in diameter, about 6 cm high and weighs about 5 kilos. Quite a big piece of cheese really, but that doesn' t explain how you can chase it. The answer is in the word 'rolling' . The race takes place on a hill, a very steep hill, nearly 45 degrees in fact, and the racecourse is about 350 metres long.

The rules are really very simple: the competitors assemble at the top of the hill and at a given signal the cheese is rolled down the hill and the competitors, usually twenty or thirty at a time, chase after it. The first person to get to the bottom with or without the cheese, it doesn' t matter, is the winner. And what is the prize for this amazing feat? Why, the cheese of course!

This strange sport has been going on in this part of Gloucestershire for well over a hundred years and no-one is really sure why it takes place. Although it sounds easy, it was actually banned in 1998 because of the number of injuries in 1997 when more than thirty-five people, mostly competitors but some spectators, needed medical attention. Apart from the steepness of the hill and the weight of the cheese, which can reach some speed and bounce up to a metre in the air on its way down the slope, another reason for the injuries was that the race was held in the evening and it was traditional for the competitors to spend the afternoon in the pub, resulting in some rather unusual methods of descent. In May 1999 the competition was restarted but at an earlier time to avoid so many accidents.

Why on earth do people do it? The best answer, perhaps, came from the 1999 Women' s winner, who said" It' s just great fun. I don' t even like cheese!" How typically British!

Steve Heighes