“Cheese! Cheese! Cheese!”
The crowd chant starts at a low rumbling level and slowly builds until everyone is on the same page. “Cheese! Cheese! Cheese!”
They are calling for the release of the first roll of cheese from the top of Cooper’s Hill. Or perhaps simply expressing their love of cheese. It doesn’t really matter.
Nerves are now jangling for the thousands of spectators lining the perimeter of the hill as well as those at the top, although probably not equally. Men at the top tentatively plan their descent, praying against broken limbs, perhaps knocking back a drink to embolden them. “Are they really going to do this?” an American voice at the barrier behind me asks.
They’d better, since we’re all here.
Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake is an annual event held on Spring Bank Bank Holiday in May near Gloucester in England. Traditionally held for the villagers of Brockworth, today it attracts people from all over the world. (The Wake part of the formal title remains a mystery to me, but probably refers to getting drunk afterwards).
To reach Cooper’s Hill you climb a sub-hill from the village of Brockworth, around a two mile hike. There is no parking nearby on event day and police cut off the roads to non locals. From a dedicated pub car park you can either walk up via a scenic route of expansive fields with panoramic views across the region, or via tree-lined roads – one wide A-road followed by a small sequence of steep, narrow winding lanes. One of these passes an acupuncturist, but there are no osteopaths or chiropractors.
Overtaking a group of people on the walk up, I overhear one young woman. She speaks in a matter-of-fact west country accent not unlike Vicky Pollard from BBC comedy sketch show Little Britain. “I was paralysed from the waist down last year. They wouldn’t let me out the hospital for ages.”
There is genuine anticipation on the walk up. I last attended around thirty years ago, so my memories are sketchy. We went with Dad’s new work colleagues after moving to the area sometime in the late 1980s and I dimly recall the steep walk back, but not much else .
When you round the final bend and are suddenly confronted by it, the almost vertical wall of green, there is an undeniable wow-factor. It’s similar to the sensation you might experience after first climbing a flight of concrete steps in a football stadium and looking down on a pristine lush green pitch. Woah, there it is. But of course this theatrical green canvas of grass is nowhere near flat and pristine. It is in fact the opposite of flat and pristine.
Annual cheese rolling at Cooper’s Hill is a big spectacle locally, nationally and globally. This is despite it not being an official event – whatever that means. It’s reported that concerns about the event being too dangerous has recently led to it being held unofficially, rather than being backed by authorities. Such insanity could never be legally permitted in an age of health and safety regulations. On site a few lofty media platforms have been erected; there are professional photographers and videographers, a Netflix documentary is being made, other television networks from overseas are here, drones are flying. Naturally in 2019, countless spectators point smartphones and cameras.
“We need you to move along behind there!” a security man shouts at spectators behind the barrier who had bottlenecked the space a short distance behind me. “Move on up the hill!”
“But we can’t all get up the hill,” a woman’s voice responds. “It’s too dangerous!”
“The whole thing’s dangerous innit love,” the security man quickly responds. Everyone laughs. No further questions.
Minutes from the first cheese launch, a cheery Mexican wave begins. It completes several circuits of the hill’s perimeter, intact arms flailing skywards, beer cans aloft. The Master of Ceremonies speaks from the top of the hill using a loudspeaker, his words tinny and unclear from the bottom.
This is it. First Aiders from St John’s Ambulance are waiting at the bottom of the hill alongside a rugby team of men placed to catch anyone still travelling at speed when they reach the bottom. Everyone is in place, the cheese roller is front and centre, waiting to release the cheese, the local villagers of Brockworth ready and set alongside their multi-national competitors.
The cheese is bowled and away they go.
Photographing people hurtling down the hill with wildly varying degrees of control and direction is a conflicting experience. Part of you wants to capture the most dramatic frame possible, but part of you doesn’t want to see something truly awful. But you can’t afford empathy, nervousness or squeamishness. You just shoot.
There are gasps and shrieks from the crowd as hurtling people take hits, bounce back up in the air, complete somersaults and continue their inexorable descent to the bottom. Waves of oohs and aahs are audible from the perimeter, as if watching human fireworks.
Watching through the viewfinder of a camera connected to a long lens, you twitch, knowing the race can’t last long, although there are several of them. But you probably haven’t captured the thing they are reacting to. What are you missing? It’s impossible to capture everything as the competitors straggle out across the hill. There is too much, a total chaos of bodies and limbs propelled largely by gravity to the bottom.
The 2019 cheese rolling winners
New local hero Max McDougall emerges as winner from the first race, not for the first time. Another villager, a beer-fuelled Ryan Fairley takes the second, although Superman was my personal hero. You might suspect there is home bias and the competitive sporting integrity of the event is not watertight. Villagers appear nicely positioned and get a little head start on the pack. Although it could be argued that experience matters, the locals know the course.
Most bodies are bumped and hurled along like rag dolls. No commanding will is obviously present. But a select few emit a confident momentary grace as they plummet. With them there is a fleeting semblance of control and intention.
One such is Flo Early. In this small fraction of a second, a shockwave shudders through her cheekbones. She appears skeletal, almost paranormally flighted down the hill.
Already a seasoned, multiple winner, she goes on to win the Women’s race and speaks to the media afterwards. She knows tips and tactics (go fast at the start and let the hill do the rest, aim for the gate). Her ankle is hurt but she is all smiles, victorious, not apparently fuelled like a previous winner who had discarded cans of Stella Artois on his way up the hill. She says this will be her last time.
There are intervening uphill races for kids and proud parents, and possibly for adults – I took a moment or two with my back to proceedings in order to begin processing images for media submission.
In the final race an overseas visitor is victorious. Mark Kit from Toronto in Canada could not be more thrilled. He gives a glorious whooping, fist-pumping celebration. His couch-surfing host appears to be almost equally buzzing.
Still photographs barely do the hill justice, especially on a longer lens cropped in. You can’t appreciate its scale or its belly-dropping gradient. You don’t have a sense of the speed or bone-crushing impacts. Should I have dabbled with a slower exposure to exaggerate the movement? Or a multiple exposure? Or shot some video? I also wondered if more unusual images couldn’t be achieved from the sides rather than from the press pen at the bottom. Of course a number of participants wore small cameras which doubtless provides an authentically bumpy, disorientating perspective.
But maybe cheese rolling is impossible to translate through any media. Owning the full experience of this event means sensing the fear and terror in the pit of your stomach, tasting the dirt in your mouth. It means feeling the blood-pumping exhilaration and the limbs straining and the endorphins flowing and the acute pain. It means doing it yourself.
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