Off the path: the rolling cheese of Stilton

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jarad A. Denton
  • 501st Combat Support Wing Public Affairs
The streets and sidewalks were packed as people enjoyed their bank holiday at Stilton Village, United Kingdom, May 5. Popular music filled the air as vendors and residents exchanged pleasantries, goods and coin.

I made a mental note to stop at the fresh-baked bread stand on the way back, not realizing that it would be practically empty by the end of the festival. Bread could wait, I thought. I was here for one reason - to find out why men, women and children came together to roll wheels of cheese down the street.

"It's not actually cheese," Richard Landy told me as we enjoyed a quiet conversation inside "Dick's Room" at the Bell Inn. "Stilton cheese wouldn't survive a roll down the street, so we use rounded blocks cut from telephone poles and painted white."

Landy, the town historian and self-professed "cheese campaigner," explained that the history of the cheese rolling dated back 50 years to 1964. After construction on a bypass was completed, traffic through the town reduced to a trickle. To save their livelihoods, landlords invented the ideas of Stilton cheese rolling - and the tradition was born. Today, more than 2,000 people lined the streets of the small village waiting for a chance to see the main event.

From my seat, in a room named after legendary highwayman and horse thief Dick Turpin, I saw baton and flag twirlers march down the street. Their choreographed routines were met with cheers and applause from proud spectators.

I wondered if all this fanfare was just about the cheese. Landy was quick to confirm my question.

"We have a very proud heritage here," he said. "This is the original home of Stilton cheese."

Landy referenced a subject of much recent debate. For many years the belief was maintained that the world-famous cheese was never made in Stilton, supported by 19th and 20th century texts. However, thanks to Landy and his tireless research - new evidence emerged that dated the production of cheese at Stilton Village to 1726. Both Stilton Village and the Stilton Cheesemakers' Association have officially recognized this evidence as legitimate.

"Have you ever tasted Stilton cheese," Landy asked, emphasizing the importance the surrounding area placed on this product.

Slightly embarrassed, I shook my head. In a flash, Landy disappeared and returned with a plate of Stilton cheese and crackers - motioning for me to try it. Whatever I was expecting was not what I tasted. The Stilton Blue Cheese was so soft and creamy; it spread evenly on the cracker and literally melted in my mouth. I am not a cheese connoisseur by any stretch of the imagination, but this was amazing and well worth the 15 minute drive from RAF Alconbury.

With such an emphasis on history, heritage and quality, it was easy to see how such a large crowd gathered outside the Bell Inn to witness the "cheese" rolling. The teams paraded around a closed section of the main street in town before lining up. One by one they tried their hardest to roll the log down the street as the crowd cheered them on.

From my vantage point, I could see that this simple cheese rolling competition was so much more in the eyes of the community. Families and friends alike spent their bank holiday together, sharing stories and breaking bread - and cheese. It further cemented my belief that we are not just next to a great community, we are part of one.

Editor's Note: Off the Path is part of an ongoing series highlighting attractions, events and points of interest within the area surrounding the 501st Combat Support Wing.