Custom demised: Stilton Cheese-rolling Cambridgeshire

Standard

“Maybe the sign should be removed as we can’t be bothered anymore.”

Mention Stilton and we all know what that means – cheese – despite the fact no cheese has ever been made there it was an important nexus point for cheese distribution. A delightful small town which has grown along the main great North Road – the A1 – feeding off the trade that has passed through it. It was an annual May bank holiday event until recently

Hard cheese

It is said that the custom was developed in 1959 as a response to the great artery of the town, the A1 being bypassed – great for traffic and concerns of pollution – but not great for trade. So local pub landlords thought how could we attract people to the town. It is said that one entrepreneurial landlord started rolling a wooden stilton outside his pub and eventually others joined in. The custom was not a constant calendar event near the beginning of its existence and was rather sporadic.

Soon however some structure developed for the custom. It would be done in teams of four all of whom would have to roll a wooden cheese from the Bell Inn to the crossroads at the bottom of the street. The rules being that all members of the team must touch the cheese at least once during the competition or being disqualified.

The competition developed into a knockout one with male and female teams, children and even wheelchair users having rounds. The prize? Stilton and beer of course! Around this would develop fun fairs, maypole dancing and the traditional fayre fair – a great day out.

A rind trip

I visited the cheese rolling back in 2001. There was a real festive feeling with everyone focused around the closed off area and cheering on the rollers. There were teams in fancy dress and some who clearly took it too seriously shouting at each other to ‘touch the cheese’. This was serious stuff and a sensible team would wear a decent pair of gloves! In the crowd someone kept shouting Limp Biscuits’ then recent hit ‘keep rollin’. To be honest it didn’t look easy and occasionally the large ‘wooden’ cheese veered off into the audience and the hit the railings nearly knocked over a toddler who was holding on . There was some real competition when the finishing line was reached with teams putting on the speed and hoping that the cheese was well behaved. All in all it was great addition to the roster of calendar customs especially in an area not well known for surviving customs.

Cheesed off

Then in 2018 this was announced

“After months of discussion Stilton Community Association has to announce that there will not be a Cheese Rolling on May Day Monday in 2018.”

Why? Well according to Raymond Brown in the online Cambridgeshire News article from 2018 stated:

“There are many reasons. Firstly, in recent years there has been a disappointing lack of enthusiasm for taking part in the cheese rolling. In 2017 there were only two teams registered. Eventually enough teams emerged, but to make a real contest we need 12 to 16 men’s teams and eight to 12 ladies teams. We have not come anywhere near these targets for four years. The young people are marginally more keen to join in, but it is no longer seen as “cool”.”

Cool? When has that ever stopped a custom? The article continued to list some of the regular nemesis of traditional customs:

“The team who ran the Cheese Rolling races retired after 2017’s event. No one has come forward to replace them. The working party who construct the course, organise the street scene and clear up (mostly non-residents of Stilton) are depleted in numbers and 2018 dates are difficult for them.”

This plus:

“The costs of putting on the event escalate every year. In recent years the event has just about broken even. Insurance is ever rising; we also now have to pay for waste disposal etc.”

The policing of the event is:

“There are serious security problems. There will not be a police presence, except if we pay a considerable fee. This means we have to employ professional security, both in the village centre and at the Pavilion.”

Sadly it looked like some of the popularity had attracted the wrong sort of interest:

“Public order is now an issue to be dealt with. In the past, Cheese Rolling had a reputation of a pleasant, family friendly day out. In recent years the atmosphere has changed and the issue of underage drinking has threatened our safety. This also threatens the livelihood of the shop and pubs.

“There is no solution to the parking problem which causes congestion beyond Norman Cross

“The disruption to residents of North Street, High Street and Fen Street has become less acceptable to new residents of these roads. Volunteers who help have been subject to nasty verbal abuse which cannot be tolerated.”

On their own each of these could be overcome perhaps but like anyone looking for a reason to kill something off the combination is a bit too much to stomach and so it was finished. One might ask is it still needed? Are there other reasons to visit Stilton or will it now slip back into bypass obscurity. Who knows – the organisers promised a return in 2019 – it did not – and so I think after the custom cull of 2020 it is very unlikely to roll back to existence.

 

 

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