The approach of autumn was always bitter sweet in my childhood memory … on the one hand, which also happened to be the down side, you were faced with the depressing fact that this was the end of the school summer holiday and the beginning of yet another school year. But, on the other hand and decidedly up side, autumn promised such childhood favourites as conker hunting, Halloween shenanigans and Guy Fawkes night! All in the space of a few weeks.
I’ll talk about Halloween and Guy Fawkes another time. This post is dedicated to the humble conker. The seed of the Horse Chestnut tree.
Ah, conkers.. Unless you experienced ‘that time’ as a child you will probably not have experienced the thrill of searching for, and subsequently finding, that elusive red-brown, shiny treasure, the conker. By ‘that time’ I mean late 1960’s early 1970’s Porthcawl, South Wales.
I’m sure children have conkered since, but this was my time…
No sooner had the first conker hit the ground, than we would be out of the door and on our bikes ready to harvest. Whatever the weather. In fact, high winds were favoured! No matter if the mission meant trespassing on private land and the subsequent threat of police intervention, nor the personal injury dangers associated with the attempted climbing of large trees. The worst that could happen was that we would end up miles from home, it had grown dark, we had no lights on our bikes, it was way past curfew and we were hungry.
No mobile phones in those days – maybe a public phone box to convey the message home. Maybe.
Conkering could do that to you. So powerful was the urge to gather those illicit, gorgeous fruits – it was worth getting carried away by the thrill of the chase. Just cycle on, runny nosed & flushed of cheek, to yet another rumoured patch and keep filling the bag. Go big or go home. You were already in trouble. Just a bit further. There’s a good tree in Newton Village. Really, its not far…Come on!
The hunt would already be underway in summer. We would lie on our backs under the huge leafy boughs, gazing skywards at the striking long white flowers bobbing and waving overhead, counting… counting, because each flower we spotted held the promise of a conker.
Around mid September was the time. The remains of the summer garden – dead leaves, weeds and other garden debris, was being raked into piles in readiness for bonfire night. It was getting damp and the evenings were ‘drawing in’. The leaves on the Horse Chestnut aka conker trees had turned their distinctive dark yellow. It was time.
The purpose and ultimate goal in all of this was to play (and win) the actual game of conkers.
Rumours were rife as to how best ‘treat’ your conker and make it stronger. My brother David favoured soaking them in vinegar and baking them in the oven. He also swore by a flatter conker, way better than a round one apparently.
Anything to beat an opponent and claim the title!
The rules of the game and according to the World Conker Championship Committee are as follows:
- The game will commence with a toss of a coin, the winner of the toss may elect to strike or receive.
- A distance of no less than 8″ or 20cm of string must be between knuckle and nut.
- Each player then takes three alternate strikes at the opponent’s conker.
- Each attempted strike must be clearly aimed at the nut, no deliberate mis-hits.
- The game will be decided once one of the conkers is smashed.
- A small piece of nut or skin remaining shall be judged out, it must be enough to mount an attack.
- If both nuts smash at the same time then the match shall be replayed.
- Any nut being knocked from the string but not smashing may be re-threaded and the game continued.
- A player causing a knotting of the string (a snag) will be noted, three snags will lead to disqualification.
- If a game lasts for more than five minutes then play will halt and the “5 minute rule” will come into effect. Each player will be allowed up to nine further strikes at their opponents nut, again alternating three strikes each. If neither conker has been smashed at the end of the nine strikes then the player who strikes the nut the most times during this period will be judged the winner.
Interestingly enough, it was not always the big ones that ended as winners. Sometimes it was an unbaked, vinegar-free little ‘un that scooped the title. I suppose there is a story there somewhere.
But even today, 40 plus years on, the sight of a conker underfoot causes my pulse to quicken and my palms to sweat. I simply cannot leave it behind and just walk on. I have to pick it up and squirrel it away. Strange that…
More of my Retro Autumn musings coming soon – next up Halloween!