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Wassailing and cheese rolling with farmer Kaleb Cooper

Wassailing at The Fleece Inn, Bretforton, Worcestershire: 'The idea is to wake up the tree spirits and frighten off the demons' Photo: Candia McKormack
Wassailing at The Fleece Inn, Bretforton, Worcestershire: 'The idea is to wake up the tree spirits and frighten off the demons' Photo: Candia McKormack

Kaleb’s back – yes, the lovable farmer from TV’s Clarkson’s Farm – and this time he’s taking us on a whistle-stop tour of rural British traditions. In this extract from his new book, Britain According to Kaleb: The Wonderful World of Country Life we go wassailing and cheeserolling with him, via a spot of duck racing.

South-West England is very special to me. Mainly because I’ve actually been there. And it takes a lot to get me out of the Cotswolds. I have to go to London from time to time, now that I’m a globe-trotting international celebrity. By ‘globe-trotting’, I mean the other bits of the Cotswolds. By ‘international’, I mean places that aren’t the Cotswolds. And by ‘celebrity’, I mean bloke who gets recognized by other country people because we’re almost never on the telly, so it’s easy to stand out.

Great British Life: Stroud Wassail: 'Wassailing is brilliant, a perfect self-sustaining system - and you get to have a massive bash while you're at it.' Photo: Candia McKormackStroud Wassail: 'Wassailing is brilliant, a perfect self-sustaining system - and you get to have a massive bash while you're at it.' Photo: Candia McKormack

WASSAILING

The biggest form of partying they have, the one that’s really popular in the South-West region, is called wassailing. When I first heard about it, I thought they said ‘sailing’. Which sort of made sense, although I was surprised they did it for fun, while drinking. If I was drunk in charge of a boat, they’d have to summon the RNLI to rescue me before I’d even left the harbour. Or got on the boat.

Wassailing is something quite different. It starts with you drinking what we farmers refer to, in technical jargon, as a sh*t-tonne of cider. In fact, almost everything they do in the South-West starts that way. Then, you put on the daftest clothes you can find and dance around in a big parade, singing, chanting, banging drums and clattering pots and pans to bless the orchards and hopefully encourage them to produce lots of apples. It sounds to me like a good way to give yourself a headache long before the cider wears off and your hangover kicks in. The idea is to wake up the tree spirits and frighten off the demons, who are apparently all just lying around the place. Perhaps they’ve been at the cider as well. I’m surprised they don’t frighten off the trees and all. If I was a tree, I’d probably be so terrified I’d refuse to do anything – no blossoms, no apples, nothing. But it seems to work for them, so their trees must be made of harder stuff than me. I suppose, being trees, they would be.

Great British Life: Using the excuse of wassailing, Styx of Stroud Border Morris side are allowed to hit the centre of town and make an awful lot of noise. Photo: Candia McKormackUsing the excuse of wassailing, Styx of Stroud Border Morris side are allowed to hit the centre of town and make an awful lot of noise. Photo: Candia McKormack

You’ve heard the phrase ‘a piss-up in a brewery’, but the wassailers are clever: they cut out the brewery – or in this case, the cidery – and go straight to the source. I think I’ve worked out how this all started. Basically, the South-West has a cider-based economy. They’ve got all these apples that they have to do something with. So, they make them into cider. Then they have to come up with an excuse for people to drink loads of cider, so what did they think of? An event that results in producing more apples! It’s brilliant, a perfect self-sustaining system – and you get to have a massive bash while you’re at it. My flat cap is off to them.

They only do it once a year, around Twelfth Night, which is impressive in itself, because the state of me after Christmas, I couldn’t even look sideways at a cider, let alone drink a wassail bowl of it. But they just go right at it, and meanwhile the demons are probably saying, ‘Sod this, we’re off to the pub,’ where – you guessed it – they’ll be drinking even more cider. I know city people usually think people in the South-West are some kind of ultra-yokels, but they couldn’t be more wrong. They’re as sharp as you like and they’ve got everyone playing their game – tourists, demons, pirates, the lot.

Great British Life: Cheese rolling on Cooper's Hill: 'A pack of lunatics with a death wish chasing a cheese down a hill.' Photo: 1000 WordsCheese rolling on Cooper's Hill: 'A pack of lunatics with a death wish chasing a cheese down a hill.' Photo: 1000 Words

CHEESE ROLLING

Let’s face it, when people think of Gloucestershire, they tend to think of one thing. A pack of lunatics with a death wish chasing a cheese down a hill. That is quite unfair, and not at all representative of the county. The great majority of the Gloucestershire people are not lunatics who chase an eight-pound round of double Gloucester down hills. In fact, they are lunatics who quite fancy chasing a cheese down a hill but just haven’t got around to trying it yet.

Now, I’m from Oxfordshire. North-West Oxfordshire, right near the Gloucestershire border, which means Gloucestershire is a full five minutes away by car, making it a completely different world. Until recently, wild horses couldn’t even have dragged me out of Oxfordshire. Not that we have any wild horses, which is one of the things I like about it. We’ve got enough to deal with – sheep and whatnot – without wild horses getting in the way. And I’m sure they feel the same in Gloucestershire. Wild horses would probably just join in and kick the you-know-what out of you when you’re trying to run down a hill after some cheese, and who wants that? But then I somehow became famous – although it still boggles my mind that that could even happen...

So, I was invited to leave Oxfordshire and go to the cheeserolling contest at Cooper’s Hill. The first thing I noticed is that the farmer whose field is at the foot of the hill is coining it at a fiver a car for parking, which of course I respect. The second thing is it’s not actually a hill. It’s a f***ing cliff. A vertical lawn.

At the top of the ‘hill’, it’s chaos. At the bottom, it’s indescribable carnage. The first race isn’t so bad, but they’re just getting warmed up. The second is for kids, and they go uphill, for safety – then when they get to the top they all come straight back down again, for fun, the mad little demons. By the third race, for women, someone had already snapped their ankle, just by watching – they got hit by the cheese, which was travelling at light speed. I even got injured myself, when a stone came down the hill and cut my leg open. The winner knocked herself out, then started cheering along with everyone else when she came round.

In the fourth race, one guy landed head-first next to me, stoved all his teeth in, then got up and asked me for a selfie. I had to tell him, ‘Mate, you haven’t got a face right now.’

When you look at all the insane things people get up to in the countryside, perhaps it’s just something to do with being from the countryside in the first place. Even so, I’m not sure there’s anything quite as mad anywhere else. I find myself wondering how it all started. Maybe we just really, really like cheese. Still, there are limits. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of cheese. Let me put that another way. I like a lot of cheese. Tell the truth, I love a lot of cheese. But I wouldn’t kill myself to get it. I might kill you. And your friends. And everyone you know. Let’s face it, if you stood between me and cheese, I’d probably do away with the lot of you, without even blinking – and that, I think we can all agree, is a perfectly normal relationship with cheese. But I wouldn’t kill me to get it, for the sole reason that I would then be unable to eat the cheese. The lovely, delicious, delectable cheese … sorry, where were we? Right!

READ MORE: Clarkson’s Farm’s Kaleb Cooper on life in the Cotswolds

So, I completely understand the motivation. Nowadays, you get people travelling from all over to get their hands on that cheese. One man came from Toronto in Canada and won the men’s event. I can only assume they don’t have any Double Gloucester where he’s from, which is a heartbreaking thought. Those poor people.

I reckon the whole thing began because the cheese comes in a wheel, and wheels roll downhill. I mean, of course they do, right? I know everyone goes on about how clever the person who invented the wheel must have been, and fair enough – where would we be without them? Not lying in a heap at the bottom of Cooper’s Hill with two broken legs, I suppose, but you have to take the rough with the smooth. All I’m saying is, let’s wait until somebody invents a wheel that rolls uphill and then we’ll see who the greatest genius of all time is. Anyway, my theory is, one day somebody was carrying a load of cheese over the top of the hill, and a wheel of cheese dropped off the pile and down it went, and then some people went after it trying to catch it, and the rest is history. OK, strictly speaking, the rest is Casualty.

It’s a decent-sized wheel they send down there nowadays, but I can’t help thinking the risk is still a little excessive in proportion to the reward. What you really want is a tractor wheel of cheese. And come to think of it, a tractor to ride on when you’re going after it. Although, when don’t you need a tractor?

Great British Life: Tetbury's Woolsack Races. Photo: Tracy SpiersTetbury's Woolsack Races. Photo: Tracy Spiers

TETBURY WOOLSACK RACES

This goes back to when Tetbury was a big deal in the wool trade. Being sheep-related, it wouldn’t usually be my thing. But the wool’s not part of the sheep any more, so I’m happy to talk about it. The contestants race up a steep hill carrying big sacks of wool – sixty pounds for men, thirty-five for women. Personally, I wouldn’t want to be carrying another sixty pounds of anything. I work on a farm and I carry hay bales all day, every day already. That said, I don’t mind watching if somebody else wants to do it. However, I’d rather go and feed some cows, as at least I know I’d get paid at the end of the year.

The wool industry is very low at the moment and it’s costing farmers more to shear the sheep than they get back for the wool. But you have to shear them anyway because if you don’t, they’ll suffer in the hot summer months, and might even get maggots. So, I guess this is probably the best thing to use the wool for right now, honouring the area’s history.

Great British Life: Come Boxing Day, this peaceful-looking river will be overrun with plastic ducks... with people on the banks screaming at them. Photo: Getty ImagesCome Boxing Day, this peaceful-looking river will be overrun with plastic ducks... with people on the banks screaming at them. Photo: Getty Images

BIBURY DUCK RACE

I’ve been to this, and it’s really good fun. I’ll definitely take the little ones when they’re old enough. On Boxing Day each year, they have two races where they put a load of ducks into the Coln river. One race has one hundred and fifty realistic looking decoy ducks. You pay a tenner and if your duck wins, you get to decide which charity gets all the ticket money. Or you can pay fifty pence for one of two thousand plastic ducks in the second race. Normally my duck goes, ‘Oh, look at that shiny thing over there,’ and heads off in the wrong direction, which I never knew an artificial duck could do, but mine have a talent for it. There’s a fascination to watching anything you throw in a river, like a twig or a leaf, so a plastic duck is twenty times more fascinating. There you are, yelling at a fake duck to go faster in the water. Come to think of it, I probably look like an idiot. But at least I’m among all the other idiots.

We’re all there together, shouting encouragement at plastic ducks.

It’s great.

Britain According to Kaleb: The Wonderful World of Country Life, by Kaleb Cooper, is published in hardback by Quercus for £20.

For our exclusive interview with Kaleb, don’t miss the January issue of Cotswold Life, on sale December 22.

Great British Life: Britain According to Kaleb, by Kaleb Cooper. Pub: QuercusBritain According to Kaleb, by Kaleb Cooper. Pub: Quercus



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