From cheese rolling to ‘Arvinder’ the royal baby, we scour the country for something to look forward to over the next 12 months
“Can you tell me the way to Cooper’s Hill, please?” I’ve been charged with finding great national events which, in 2013, can replicate the buzz that the Olympics and, in some of the home counties at least, the Queen’s diamond jubilee supplied in 2012. Which is why I find myself on the A46, somewhere between Cheltenham and Stroud, with a local man pointing at a tree-covered hill in the distance. Up I go, because I have decided the Gloucester Cheese Roll’s time has come.
They have rolled cheeses – usually 8lb Double Gloucesters – down Cooper’s Hill for millennia. In her book Cheese Rolling in Gloucestershire, Jean Jefferies suggests that, like most things, it may have been introduced by the Phoenicians while on a trading expedition up the Bristol Channel. It is now part of the warp and weft of British life.
Who needs the Olympic 5000m? The Cheese Roll attracts thousands of spectators each spring bank holiday Monday – the 2013 event is scheduled for 27 May – as well as a large media presence. Live TV coverage and the presence of Clare Balding would embed it in the national psyche. That is my vision as I search for the fabled slope.
When I find it, however, anxieties creep in. There are fences at the top and bottom of the hill and a sign saying “EROSION CONTROL”. One of the locals in the hamlet at the foot of the slope tells me concerns about health and safety have dogged the event – some competitors have suffered serious injuries as they hurtled downhill in pursuit of the cheese. The old organising committee has pulled out and a new committee, operating without the support of the local council, has taken over. It dawns on me that this is a great national event in crisis. Where is Lord Coe when you need him?
When I meet one of the new organisers, Candis Phillips, in the local pub later, it also becomes clear she doesn’t want the event to get any bigger. Its success, she explains, is part of the problem. An entrepreneur spotted its potential a couple of years ago and made a deal with the council to turn it into a two-day festival, with tickets at £20 – a kind of mini-Glastonbury with music, circus events and a bit of cheese rolling thrown in.
The locals rebelled, the plan was dropped, the council got stroppy, the old committee resigned, and now the Cheese Roll is an unofficial event staged by committed locals. For the moment, my hopes of it becoming the caseophile’s answer to the Grand National are on hold. So, hard cheese so far.
Sodden ground at Glastonbury
Sixty miles south, at Worthy Farm, near Glastonbury, prospects are less clouded, though they are already fretting about the state of the sodden ground. The music festival returns on 26 June after its “fallow year”, and founder Michael Eavis, wearing shorts despite the driving rain, and head of infrastructure, Phil Miller, are discussing the erection of a new toilet block. “Most organisations are top-down, but we are bottom-up,” Eavis tells me.
The statistics at Glastonbury are staggering: 140,000 attendees; 30,000 crew; 1,000 acts; 5,000 toilets. They are, in effect, constructing and servicing a city the size of Bath for the five-day festival, and the demands made on Miller, who used to build houses for the local council, are huge. “It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done,” he says.
They are pleased to have missed 2012, and say it would have been a disaster. “We avoided three inches of rain over that weekend,” says Eavis. “It was the highest rainfall ever recorded in June. We would have been well and truly stuffed. We’ve been going 43 years and we’ve always got away with it, but I think the weather’s getting worse.”
Eavis’s daughter Emily, who co-organises the festival, is coy about this year’s line-up. “It’s looking really good,” she says. “There are a lot of British acts, which is great. Getting the balance right is the struggle. There are a lot of people around who really want to do it, but you have to have the new bands to balance the legends. We’re short of new bands coming through who are big enough to headline the pyramid stage.” Will the Rolling Stones show up? It sounds unlikely, but she says she hasn’t given up on getting them to headline on Saturday, the final piece in the programming jigsaw.
Tickets sold out in six hours – remarkable at a time when many music festivals have gone to the wall. How have they bucked the trend? “We’re just better at it,” says Michael Eavis. “Other festivals tried to copy us, but they didn’t do it well enough. We’re always exploring new stuff, new ideas, and each festival is different from the previous one.”
“And we don’t plan to make lots of money,” adds Emily. “It’s the worst possible business model.”
Chilly front at Trent Bridge
Cricket, which was marginalised for much of Olympic year, also returns to centre stage in 2013, with 10 back-to-back Ashes Tests. The home leg starts at Trent Bridge in Nottingham on 10 July, and, after their triumph in India, England will start as warm favourites.
But it is far from warm when I visit the ground. The wind is biting, the sky lowering, and it’s hard to imagine this wonderfully intimate arena packed with 17,000 sun-drenched cricket fans six months from now. But packed it will be. “Tickets for the first four days sold out in six hours,” says Michael Temple, head of marketing at Trent Bridge. “It was pandemonium. We’ve never experienced anything like it.”
Temple says getting a Test, and especially the first one, is a boost for the town. “Having a Test here has a huge effect on the local economy and employment. Everyone benefits – bars, restaurants, hotels. There’s a direct economic impact, but there’s also the positive effect of broadcasting Nottingham and Trent Bridge around the world.” Publicity-shy cheese rollers, take note.
Royal baby talk
The summer of 2013 promises to be a euphoric one. As well as the Ashes and Glastonbury, there is the royal baby to look forward to. “It will be such a joy,” says a Chinese tourist at the entrance to Windsor Castle – Chinese visitors to the town outnumber Americans.
Any guesses on the name? “Something posh and English,” she suggests. Elizabeth and Victoria are the girls’ names favoured by the bookies, each at 5-1; Diana is surprisingly short at 9-1; Britney an untempting 500-1. The boys’ market is wide open, with John, James and Charles all 10-1 or thereabouts, while the rather less likely Rylan has attracted some interest at 1,000-1.
What does the baby mean for Windsor? “It will attract a lot of visitors,” says Arvinder Aujla, who runs a gift shop opposite the castle. “The jubilee brought in tourists from overseas, and we’re hoping the baby will do the same.” He expects to sell lots of baby-related merchandise – plates, mugs, spoons. Royal events have always been synonymous with mugs. Are people in the town excited? “So far there hasn’t been too much hype around it because it’s still early days,” he says, “but once D-day comes closer you’ll see a lot of interest and we’ll be selling lots of little flags.” And what about the name? Arvinder, he suggests.
Perhaps this could also be the year when we finally turn the corner economically. Official forecasts predict growth of at best 1%, but in Milton Keynes – one of the fastest growing towns in the UK – they are anticipating 3%-plus. “The statistics demonstrate that Milton Keynes is early into a recession and early out,” says the council’s chief executive, David Hill. Start-up businesses are booming, unemployment is falling, and it is building 1,500 homes a year.
What’s the secret? “We’ve got tremendously good transport links and the quality of life is very high,” says the council leader, Andrew Geary. The carefully planned grid system means there are no traffic jams, the entire city centre is a shopping mall, and even the Wetherspoons near the station has tasteful wicker chairs outside. MK, as most of the locals call it, is a vision of the future – a future where the cows are made of concrete and places have initials rather than names. Oh, brave new world.
Banking on the new governor
From July, the Bank of England will have a new governor charged with overseeing the recovery – the Canadian Mark Carney. They are already polishing the steps at the entrance to the bank when I pitch up. “Do we really have to bring in a colonial?” asks one portly, red-faced banker outside the Royal Exchange. It transpires he’s joking, and in reality thinks Carney is a good appointment.
That was the general view when the surprise decision was announced – until it was revealed he was getting a housing allowance of £250,000 a year and an overall package worth close to £700,000. Now his reception might be frostier.
In J Redford & Co (“Havana Cigars at Pleasing Prices”), the tobacconists opposite the bank, they are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. “I’m sure he’s got some new ideas to get the country back on the road,” says the shop’s owner, Mukesh Gaglani. “Let’s just hope he smokes cigars,” adds his assistant Vinod Dave, who has worked in the shop for 37 years.
Gaglani says: “The present governor [Mervyn King] is a non-smoker. His predecessor, Sir Eddie George, was a very good client of ours and often used to come in. He was always very chatty and polite.” But he died of lung cancer, I point out. “Unfortunately everybody has to die from one thing or another,” says Gaglani philosophically.
I suggest that Carney, being Canadian, is likely to be a non-smoker, perhaps even militantly so. “They can be anti-smoking,” admits Gaglani, “and if he doesn’t come to the shop, that’s fine. The main thing is that he does something for the country.” “Maybe,” says Dave, “he will find it so stressful he will start smoking.” On his salary, Carney could afford the Montecristo No 2, a snip at £21.50, or even the Cohiba Siglo No 6 at a pleasing £32.
Politicking at Westminster
It will emphatically not be the year when the UK finally decides whether it is in Europe or not. Tuesday is the 40th anniversary of Britain joining what was then called the European Economic Community, and incredibly we still haven’t decided if we really want to be part of the club.
The prime minister is promising a big speech on Europe this month, but it is likely to be an exercise in obfuscation. The only certainty is that the EU will get even bigger on 1 July when Croatia joins. They will no doubt be raising a glass of slivovitz to mark the occasion at the George and Dragon in the Kentish village of Westerham, Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s local.
Domestic politics will also be in suspended animation. The coalition will survive, just, but with ever more public divisions as the two governing parties set out their stalls before the general election due in 2015.
Nick Clegg will probably still be hanging on as Lib Dem leader by next Christmas – it’s a toss-up whether he or Julian Assange will be ousted first. As for Ed Miliband, who has been gifted a poll lead of 10 points by coalition incompetence, he will at some stage have to identify the odd policy.
It’s a fair bet Labour’s lead will be less healthy by the end of the year, with a scoreless draw still the most likely outcome at the next election.
Britain’s muted celebration of 40 years in the EU is just one of this year’s batch of anniversaries. Significant birthdays for Wagner, Verdi and Benjamin Britten will make it a feast for opera lovers. It is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy, an event which once seemed sui generis but is now receding into the maw of history, and of the Profumo affair. Janeites will celebrate the 200th anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice; and feminists will mark the death of Emily Davison, the suffragette who threw herself in front of the king’s horse in the 1913 Derby.
If we believe Philip Larkin, it is also the 50th anniversary of sex. In Annus Mirabilis he writes: “Sexual intercourse began / In nineteen sixty-three / (Which was rather late for me) – / Between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP.”
One way and another, 1963 was a defining year, and 2013 will have to go some way to beat it. For all its excitements, cheese rolling may not be enough.