June 1, 2010

What are a few broken bones? We're having fun!

For give or take two centuries, assorted crazies, zealots and weirdos have gathered on a steep hill at Cotswolds, Gloucestershire for a wild and crazy event that long ago became an annual ritual, but because of “safety concerns,” officials have tried to cancel the 2010 Whitsun Cheese Rolling for the third time in recent years. They were only partially successful.

The origins of the cheese rolling, traditionally held on the last day of May, are shrouded in the mists of history. The first time there was any kind of press on the event was in 1826, but locals acknowledge that it had been going on for years before that, suggesting that the cheese roll might be rooted in some kind of ancient, pagan ritual.

The event has a rich history. Many cheese makers have lovingly crafted the 7-pound wheels over the years, most considering it an honor. In 1941, due to war rationing, wooden dummy cheese wheels were substituted That practice continued until 1954 when the real thing again found its place on the hill. Since 1988 all the cheese wheels have been hand crafted by 83-year-old local cheese-master Diana Smart, of the Forest of Dean Farm.

As the wheel plummets downhill, it may reach speeds of 70 MPH as competitors go ass over teakettle attempting to catch up, beat the other competitors to the bottom, and therefore win the cheese for their very own.

The race has its risks, and there have always been a few injuries. As the event’s official website states, “Many get injured, even spectators, with mostly sprains and minor injuries but also broken bones.” In 1997 the event set a new a record with 33 casualties. This proved a bit much, and the organizers, prompted by local political officials, decided to cancel the following year. Cheese rollers would have none of it, and promptly reorganized the event unofficially.

However, participants and spectators alike were disappointed again in 2001, and yet again is 2003 as safety concerns prompted one cancellation after another. And now it has happened again.

The 1998 cancellation was prompted by the large number of participant injuries. Subsequent cancellations have been prompted by crowd size. Last year saw 15,000 people fill an area intended for only 5,000. The result is that 2010 is again cancelled. Diana Smart said that she is “shattered.”

This year's cheese-rolling was due to again take place on May 31, but the event's organizing committee, said they had to cancel on the advice of the police and local authorities. As well as concerns about the safety of the crowd and the competitors, landowners were worried by the amount of damage done by people climbing over fences and cars parking willy nilly wherever there was space.

Organizers say the "official" cheese-rolling will return in a revised form next year.  In the mean time, die-hards are again organizing an unofficial roll.

The show must go on.