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Another Note From the Edge (of the Forest of Dean)

on rolling down a hill to the accompaniment of a dairy product in summertime.

There is a place near Gloucester in England called Coopers Hill. As a hill it doesn’t amount to much. No more than a couple of hundred feet. However, it is steep. In places it simply drops a few feet without any slope. You couldn’t really walk up it without getting on all fours. This makes it the ideal place for Cheese Rolling.

Every summer, tennis has Wimbledon, cricket has Lords, and Cheese Rolling has Coopers Hill. Like Wimbledon, torrential rain normally accompanies the proceedings, but this does not seem to deter anyone. The event attracts several thousand spectators and the odd foreign TV crew.

The sport appears to be simple, although I am told that there is a set of arcane rules and procedures that have to be adhered to. The starter rolls a cheese down the hill. Idiots chase it and try and get hold of it. Whoever is in physical contact with the cheese at the winning post is the winner and gets to keep the cheese. The cheese is a 20-odd lb Double Gloucester which is both desirable and valuable under normal circumstances.

However, having rolled down a hill, chased and manhandled by about 50 people, the cheese is normally wrecked and covered in mud, blood, sweat and spit. This must be the most worthless prize in sport, unless you are a forensic scientist who collects DNA from the shallow end of the gene pool. The runner-up gets £10 and the third £5, which enables these contestants to end up with far more actually edible cheese than the winner.

Cheese Balls

Cheese that could easily roll down a hill

The card consists of five races, including one for competitors from overseas. Between the official races, children run in their own uphill events. This has the added bonus of churning up the ground and making it even more slippery for later contests. Once all of the official events are over, various groups stage their own, independent, events. These unofficial heats tend not to involve a cheese, so are really public exhibitions of self-harm.

There are paramedics stationed at regular intervals down the hill and a small fleet of ambulances standing by. The air ambulance sat ominously in a field, touting for business. I’m told that no one has ever been killed. Last year one bloke was carted off for four days in the Gloucestershire Royal Infirmary. The local paper carried a photo of him in his hospital bed, partially mummified and with a thumbs up sign and grin indicating that the morphine had yet to wear off.

There were various stalls and sideshows at the bottom of the hill and the local pub was doing a roaring trade. Tempting, but I had an urge to buy some cheese. I fancied Gloucestershire cheese, but I didn’t want anything that had been rolled down a hill. So I went to a farm shop, on a farm that produces milk that makes cheese.

Officially, there are two types of Gloucester cheese: Single and Double, plus a variant I discovered that very afternoon. All are made with milk from pedigree Gloucester cows. The curds make cheese and the whey is normally fed to pigs.

Double Gloucester is made from morning and evening milk, is dyed with a natural coloring and tastes tangy. This is the one that they roll down the hill.

The lighter, much rarer, Single Gloucester is made from whole morning milk and skimmed evening, is undyed and tastes creamy and crumbly. There is only a handful of producers and they have legal protection: Unless it is made by them to a specific recipe and process it cannot be called Single Gloucester. Nor can it be used for cheese rolling.

My big discovery was Harefield, also known as “Gloucestershire Parmesan”. This is Single Gloucester that has been matured for a year. It is a hard cheese, but the Parmesan comparison is wrong because it is savory rather than nutty. I know of only one producer and it is far too good for any form of sporting activity.

There were plenty of other local cheeses too. There were soft curd cheeses, goat and sheep cheeses, local imitations of brie and camembert, the ubiquitous cheddar and the notorious Stinking Bishop. You wouldn’t want to roll any of these.

I had a lovely day. Of course, the “sport” of Cheese Rolling is dangerous and pointless, a bit like vertical Grid Iron. But I found it inspirational. It inspired me to buy a world class cheeseboard entirely sourced from producers and cows that live within a 30 mile radius of my kitchen.