May 26, 2008

Say 'cheese'

It was 7am, it was hammering down rain and Punts' newly-fitted stereo system — er, that'd be the £5 portable radio we bought from Woolworths and blu-tacked to the dashboard — was pumping out tunes like Wonderwall, Mustang Sally and Two Princes... That's right folks, we were finally trippin'.

Making the most of the half-term school holidays (when Craig gets a week off from coaching), we decided to jump in Punts and see a bit more of the country we call the Motherland. A couple of days in Oxford, followed by a couple in Bath would do the trick, but first, we had our first weird and wacky festival to attend...

The Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling Festival is said to be around 200 years old, and basically involves a massive roll of cheese, an insanely steep hill (which the cheese is rolled down) and some dead-set maniacs who race to the bottom (absolutely caning themselves while tumbling down the super-steep and and uneven descent) — the winner gets the cheese. We first heard of the festival while watching Backpackers, a show which helped inspire our very own trip, and quickly put it on our to-do list.

With the first race at 12 noon, we were one of the first to arrive at 9.30am. While we were a little apprehensive about the weather situation, we weren't about to let a bit of drizzle stop us from doing something we had been dreaming of doing for yonks. So, there we were, parked in a slippery-wet field in the middle of England, rugged up in the warmest clothes we had in our backpack (yes, backpack, we are sharing one for the week), and about to begin our ascent up Cooper's Hill.

We mindlessly followed some fellow Cheese-Rolling enthusiasts up some very-steep winding trails, and found ourselves at the top of the hill — it was so steep at the top, that you couldn't actually see the hill below — trying to figure out which would be the best possie to watch the races. We figured about halfway would be our best bet — you'd get a good view of the start, middle and finish — the only problem was, after inching our way down the muddy and slippery surface, we realised that, thanks to a rather-large, uneven mound in front of us, we couldn't actually see the middle of the race that well.

After debating whether we should stay put, or risk ending up covered in mud by first painstakingly making our way down our side of the hill, then trying to climb up the other side, we decided it was way to risky and stayed put, our feet awkwardly placed on some of the only small bits of compact mud we could find, that's exactly where we waited for two hours until the first cheese roll of the day.
It wasn't too bad to start off with, we were warm from all the climbing and there was only a light drizzle. Then, at about 11am, the crowds started to roll in, and so did the wind and rain! With the rain coming at us horizontally, and the wind at times almost knocking us over, we persevered. Slowly, the rain started to seep through our jackets, and the ground became muddier, making it harder and harder to stay on our feet. It was official, this was the coldest I have ever been in my life. To make matters worse, a young boy covered in mud, who I could only use a word starting with c and rhyming with stunt to describe, had positioned himself directly next to Craig, and was constantly losing his footing and sliding into us, causing us to fear a domino-like human avalanche should he knock Craig off his feet.

Relief filled the crowd when the first contestants took their places at the top of the hill — finally, some action to take our minds off the current conditions. The Cheese Master strolled out and the crowd cheered, the cheese started rolling and so did the contestants, some tumbling head first the entire way down. The winner of the race ended up surrounded by paramedics, and eventually put in a neck brace and stretchered off, but don't worry, he still got his cheese — a fellow contestant proudly followed the winner to the ambulance, cheese held proudly in the air.

We managed to endure the extreme conditions for two more races (including a women's race), before our bodies couldn't handle any more pain and we decided to pack 'em. Getting out was no easy feat, the grass that once covered the hill had now turned completely to mud, there was about 10 metres of muddy hill between us and freedom. This mere 10 metres took around 15 minutes to cross. Carefully making our way across, baby step by baby step, we used tree branches, weeds and various spectators to hold us up, we were at the home stretch when the inevitable happened — I fell over. With my feet losing grip, my body hit the mud, a massive 'aawww' was heard from the crowd as I slid about four metres before I grabbed a tree branch, hoisted myself up and made my way off the hill with little dignity in tact. There are no photos of our heroic escape, our fingers were simply to frozen to operate the camera.
Reaching the walking paths was pure freedom, our jelly legs went as fast as the could down the winding, muddy tracks, through the wet parking field and to Punts, I never thought I'd be so happy to see her! Covered in mud, we jumped in the car and turned on the heater immediately — I never thought I would feel warm again. Of course simply driving out would've been too easy, Punts' tyres couldn't grip the rain-soaked grass, we were stuck. After a few attempts at trying to get her our (I even tried pushing her!), I managed to find a official-looking guy in a fluoro yellow jumpsuit, and him and a mate pushed Punts to safety.

Finally on the open road, our bodies started to thaw out. Still in our wet clothes, we pulled over to a parking bay at the side of the road and changed out of our soaked clothes and into some dry, clean clothes... heaven. As much as we just wanted to go home, have a hot bath and jump into bed, our journey was not yet complete, it was now off to experience hostel life for the first time in Oxford...

To see footage from this year's event, click below...