Financial woes don't stop annual Cheese Rolling festival

  • Photo 1 of 7

    Competitors run down Coopers Hill in pursuit of a round Double Gloucester cheese on May 25, 2009 during the annual cheese rolling and wake near Gloucester.

    - Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

  • Photo 2 of 7

    With a disputed history dating back to at least the 1800s, the annual Cooper's Hill Cheese Rolling involves hordes of fearless competitors chasing an 8lb Double Gloucester cheese down a steep hill.

    - Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

  • Photo 3 of 7

    A competitor falls as he runs down Cooper's Hill. The slope of the hill has a gradient in places of 1-in-2 and in others 1-in-1.

    - Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

  • Photo 4 of 7

    Another competitor takes a tumble as he runs down Cooper's Hill. The hill's surface is very rough and uneven and it is almost impossible to remain on foot for the descent.

    - Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

  • Photo 5 of 7

    An injured competitor is lowered down Cooper's Hill after falling during a cheese rolling race in Gloucester on May 25, 2009.

    - Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

  • Photo 6 of 7

    Spectators watch as competitors run down Cooper's Hill during the annual cheese rolling and wake near Gloucester.

    - Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

  • Photo 7 of 7

    A competitor holds a round Double Gloucester cheese after winning the annual cheese rolling race on Cooper's Hill.

    - Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images

Diana Smart, maker of the Double Gloucester cheese.

JEREMY HOBSON: Today is usually a big day in Gloucestershire England. It's the annual cheese rolling festival, where they hurl a wheel of cheese down a nearly vertical slope, and contestants chase after it.

The "official" event this year has been cancelled due to funding problems. But as Christopher Werth reports, some diehards are planning to keep the custom alive.

CHRISTOPHER WERTH: I made my way to Cooper's Hill, which has been used for cheese rolling contests here for centuries. And as you can hear, getting to the top isn't easy.

WERTH: It is a steep climb.

And a 600-foot drop to the bottom.

WERTH: I don't know how you'd ever run down this.

But when I meet Richard Jefferies, a long time organizer of the event, he recites the call that's prompted countless numbers to hurl themselves over side.

RICHARD JEFFERIES: One to be ready. Two to be steady. Three for the cheese. And four, the runners go after it.

First one down gets to take home the cheese -- a seven pound wheel of Double Gloucester, which tastes like a sharp cheddar. But I wouldn't call what competitors to do get there "running." This video from a couple of years ago shows people literally toppling down the hill.

CHRIS ANDERSON: It's near impossible to stay on your feet.

Chris Anderson has won six times. And as he can attest, someone always leaves in an ambulance.

ANDERSON: Knocked myself out in 2007. Woke up on a stretcher.

But what started as a local rite of passage is straining under the weight of its growing popularity.

In 2009, Richard Jefferies says, 15,000 people flocked to Cooper's Hill, far more than ever before.

JEFFERIES: I can remember 60 years ago when maybe 300, 400 people turned up.

With bigger crowds, local authorities imposed strict rules. Jefferies and other volunteers were suddenly dealing with things like traffic management and security. Richard's wife, Jean, says the cost of the event quickly went from around $11,000 to over $300,000.

JEAN JEFFERIES: The only way we were going to pay for all of it was going to have to be to charge people to come. And we really were never comfortable with that.

Organizers did try to introduce a $30 ticket fee this year, but they were met with fierce opposition.

JEAN: Eventually, we said, we can't do this and we walked away.

But Chris Anderson and a group of renegade cheese rollers are planning an "unofficial" festival today.

ANDERSON: I think it's definitely going to go ahead. Got to keep the tradition going really.

Spectators watch as competitors run down Cooper's Hill during the annual cheese rolling festival.

The only costs should be the $60 per wheel of cheese. Only about a thousand people are expected to show up.

In Gloucestershire, England, I'm Christopher Werth for Marketplace.

Diana Smart, maker of the Double Gloucester cheese.


I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...

Sustainability Coverage

  • The Kendeda Fund
  • Wealth & Poverty Coverage

  • The Ford Foundation