This Side of the Pond – Feb. 1

By Sarah Pridgeon

It’s sad to see traditions wither away, even when they’re dairy-based. Distressing news from back home this week that the annual cheese rolling contest in Stilton has been cancelled because nobody thinks it’s cool any more.

This opens the door for a number of important questions. The most pressing of which, I feel, is: who decided it was cool in the first place? Culturally enlightening, yes, and definitely entertaining, but cool?

The Stilton Cheese Rolling Contest has been going on, as far as we can tell, for at least half a century, but some would tell you it’s been around for much longer than that. Specifically, the gentleman who started the event would tell you it’s an “ancient tradition” in Cambridgeshire.

The origins of the festival remind me a little of Burnout Wednesday, only with the opposite motivation. While Alice and Jerry grew Sundance’s familiar event from almost nothing because the celebrations had come to them, the landlord of a Stilton pubs was hoping to attract that attention in the first place.

This was in the 1950s, when Stilton was growing quieter by the year because a new motorway was taking all those potential visitors in a different direction. The local businesses were suffering and something needed to be done.

And so, one day, that landlord found himself a wooden replica of a wheel of blue cheese (I’m sure such a thing was readily available in most supermarkets and gift stores) and rolled it up the road outside his pub. Having attracted a curious audience, he explained he wanted to revive a tradition that had been lost in the mists of time.

Whether or not he was telling the truth is a question we will never know the answer to, but soon enough other people decided to join in. Scores of folk lined up with their wheels, rolling them up the road from the pub to the crossroads, and the winner took home wine or beer and, unsurprisingly, some Stilton blue cheese.

Nowadays, it’s a knockout contest that takes place in teams of four – or, at least, it was. The cheese rolling and the Maypole dancing, fairgrounds and music that came with it have been packed away in Stilton’s attic, perhaps never to be seen again.

Sadly, only two teams had registered – not nearly enough, said the Stilton Community Association. And alongside that “disappointing lack of enthusiasm”, they couldn’t get anyone to organize the race.

Residents were understandably upset, one of them snarkily suggesting that they’ll have to take down the village sign because it has a picture of the cheese rolling on it. “Maybe the sign should be removed as we can’t be bothered anymore,” he sulked.

This is a second cheese-based blow for the little village, which was told not long ago that it’s not allowed to produce the cheese to which it gave its name. Like champagne and Cornish pasties, Stilton blue cheese has Protected Geographical Status, which means it can only be made with local milk in licensed dairies in three English counties.

Cambridgeshire is not one of them. Stilton did apply to have the village included in 2013, but its request was denied. That poor little town has the worst luck when it comes to dairy products.

Fortunately, if you were hoping to schedule a European tour around your hopes to witness cheese rolling, I have good news for you: the Stilton version is not and has never been the most famous of them. That honor goes to the Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling and Wake held every spring in Gloucester, which attracts foolhardy contestants from all around the world.

It doesn’t have an organizer – it doesn’t really need one.  Hundreds of people simply turn up at the top of a seriously steep hill to chase and catch a foam replica of a Double Gloucester cheese (it used to be a real wheel, but apparently it reached speeds of up to 70 miles per hour and kept knocking over the spectators).

This has allegedly been happening for hundreds of years, if not thousands. Some say it was brought to Britain by the Phoenicians in 54 B.C., others that the Romans came up with the idea. Nobody can agree on the purpose of the event – some claim it was a fertility festival, others that buns and biscuits were once thrown down the hill to encourage a fruitful harvest and still others that it evolved from what I can only assume was the world’s weirdest requirement to maintain grazing rights.

It used to involve other events such as “grinning for a cake” and “shin kicking”, but these days the cheese is the only attraction. This could be because everyone’s attention is on the numerous injuries caused by competitors flinging themselves down a hillside so steep it’s almost vertical.

After St. John’s Ambulance complained that it didn’t have enough paramedics to treat all the casualties at once, the number of runners in each heat was reduced from 40 to 15. Another example of “only in Britain”, methinks – it’s only since I began my mission to share a little of my culture with my new neighbors that I’ve realized we’re about as eccentric as it gets.