It’s not very often I stop to think how utterly stupid some English traditions are, from Morris dancing to gurning and nettle eating contests. It’s telling that these all seem to be rural traditions, I guess entertainment in the villages was a little slow back in the day.
And so it was, I found myself in Brockworth, Gloucestershire, this May Bank Holiday, to watch the annual Cheese-Rolling down Coopers Hill; another crazy English tradition that goes back 600-years and amazingly still goes ahead in this modern world of health and safety and [you’d like to think] superior human intelligence and an understanding of gravity.
But, let’s start on the night before, with a stay at the Marriott Cheltenham Chase.
Having decided to make a couple of days of it and get a hilly six-mile walk in on the way, we’d booked a night to take advantage of the spa in the hotel, enjoy a quiet meal, and then be conveniently positioned to walk up the nearby Coopers Hill for the Cheese Rolling on the Monday.
Now, whenever I book a nice weekend break, in my head, I mistakenly tell myself how it will play out. I’ll pop down to the pool, chill out in the sauna and jacuzzi, swim a couple of lengths and laze on a sunbed for half an hour, before enjoying a couple of pints in a reasonably priced bar and enjoying a nice meal and a night-cap. The word spa conjures up relaxation to me, so it’s always something get me in the mood. Of course, it’s very hard to achieve that with five loungers between about 40 people, all crammed into a pool designed for about ten people (one lounger between two I guess), complete with screaming kids, one fella with his arse hanging out of his shorts (not me for once), and five people squeezed into a sauna the size of a family chest freezer.
Never mind; the menu looked nice for dinner, I can relax then. That was until our hotel room phone rang ten minutes before our booking to let us know they were only serving the lunch menu.
Having been gently reminded by my girlfriend about how hard it is for hotels to get staff, I soon settled back into the ‘new normal’ of the lunch menu as we sat down to eat.
And then I saw him. Dave, (I found out later) sitting on his own across the restaurant. He looked like a young Wilford Brimley.
If you were born in the seventies, you’ll know Wilf from Cocoon, a film about a bunch of old people who discover some alien pods that make them all feel and act younger.
Even back then, as soon as I saw him, I knew that when I got to grandad age, which ironically I am already, I wanted to look just like Wilf. My only concern is (because I do still plan to try it out in about 20 years), that I won’t be able to get that moustache rocking like Wilf and all my years of dreaming will be dashed.
Well, Dave had the Wilf look going on and stupidly – although I should have guessed what would happen – I told my girlfriend. I also kept peeking over my shoulder, with a mix of admiration and envy.
Of course, after a wee-break by said girlfriend, she eventually returned to tell me that she’d been over and chatted to Wilf-Lookey-Likey Dave to explain that we weren’t staring, just admiring his moustache. He seemed to take it well.
So well, in fact, he came over halfway through our meal and started talking to us – mid-meal. Part of me couldn’t stop staring at his rugged top-lip like a teenage girl gawping at Harry Styles, the other half wanted to tell him to bugger off so I could finish my lunchtime-subsitute dinner.
Oh great, his girlfriend now joined him at last having been on her phone for about half an hour. The girlfriend question did need clarifying though, what with her being in her thirties. (Told you the Wilf look rocks!) So, Dave, an American, and Chelsea, from Harrogate and young enough to be his daughter, decided now was the best time to have a very long conversation with us, including showing us her list of complaints about the hotel that she’d written down on a napkin, the first of which was “Waiter is a c**t”. Strong, constructive start there.
Eventually, after about twenty minutes and a cold meal on my plate, they left. We’d chatted about cheese-rolling – the reason why they were also at the hotel – and agreed (fingers crossed under the table) to meet them in the foyer at 10.30 the next morning for the midday start of the event.
I then had my reasonably priced night-cap of a large G&T – a bargain at £16.
Now, I’ll never judge a couple. But I assume they had an agreed relationship structure. As we rode back in the lift to our room at about 9.30, she was waiting on our floor for the lift to arrive, having presumingly put old Davey-boy to bed, so she could go back downstairs to seek some sort of action. I say this because she had tied the “Do Not Disturb” sign so it hung over her front bottom, obviously for a good introductory talking point, and revelled in telling us very loudly, “Do not disturb, do not disturb!” as she swung the tag around like a nipple-tassel on a stripper.
Coopers Hill Cheese Rolling
The day had arrived. Up early and down for an 8am breakfast. You know you’re an early riser when you’re in with the 50 old people having breakfast before they set off for the days adventure on their coach trip.
Back to the room, all packed for 9am. We’ve got time to pop into Gloucester to look at the Cathedral and body swerve Dave and Chelsea… Phew!
Didn’t quite work like that though. Turns out people were already heading up the hill. So, we made the snap decision to go early. Turns out that this was a very good decision because we got a spot right by the finish line on the front row. And, by 10.30, the time we’d arranged to meet, the crowd was already six deep.
Now, it turns out this is not really an officially organised event. Which is why I am amazed it takes place. I knew about the cheese rolling from it being on the news each year as an “And Finally” piece. (Boy, the news could do with those again.)
Then a couple of years ago, on Netflix, I watched the episode of We Are The Champions about the cheese rolling, which drove me to want to come, along with people from all over the world it seems. (This year there was a winner from Japan and another from the US.)
I videoed the event (see below), which does not do the gradient of Coopers Hill justice. It has a 50% gradient in some parts – it’s crazy. We were at the bottom, where it levels out a bit (when I say “levels out”, it’s still bloody steep!).
The shock of seeing the first race makes you realise how bloody idiotic this event actually is.
The first race saw a guy having to be taken away on a stretcher. Then the woman who won the female race actually knocked herself unconscious at the finish line, and was out for the count for a good five minutes. The final race, and I still squirm, saw a guy halfway down whose leg below the knee was obviously broken. I could tell by, what I like to call, the dangle-angle.
As I get older, I seem to be getting more squeamish about things… Like the thud of legs, bodies and heads hitting hard ground close up at god-knows was speed down a very steep hill. Yes, I know, my middle-age has well-and-truly kicked my bottle into touch.
Perhaps it’s time to settle down, put myself into a Florida retirement community, and break into the house next door to use their indoor swimming pool.
At least I’ll get a lounger and be able to relax as I comb my moustache.