Does anyone, like me, still have that childhood urge to pick up the beautiful horse chestnuts that adorn the country lanes and meadows at this time of year? Going back to school after the long Summer holidays in late September and October always heralded feverish scrambling to collect the dark brown gems at the roadside. I remember it being all very competitive with us boys walking and cycling for miles in the local countryside in the hope of finding a Horse Chestnut tree that the other kids didn’t know about. We’d stuff our trouser pockets full of them and hurry home to string them up in endless games. A particularly heavy find would sometimes mean carrying them in the upturned front of your jumper with any luck.
Upon finding a tree the ground inspection would begin, after this the large sticks would get thrown up at the branches of the tree in order to dislodge as many more as possible. If possible one of us would shin up the tree and give the large bows a good shake whereupon the conkers would rain down on us avaricious collectors. I recall one particularly harrowing occasion when a group of friends were doing this ill-advisedly by the side of a main road very near to where I live now. Two of my pals of that era, so consumed by the booty that was being shaken down from the tree, ran out into the front of a motorist travelling up the road and sustained a broken leg and a broken pelvis respectively. It seems incredible now but it really did happen.
I’m not ten years old any more but I can still hardly resist peeling a couple of conkers from their shells and shining them up. They really are such attractive looking fruits of nature. For this reason it doesn’t surprise me at all when I hear about ‘conker world championships’ and the like, played by adults. All of us have to remember the child inside ourselves now and again.
Used bootlaces, if you had them, were the order of the day for stringing ‘em up or failing that a poor second of garden twine or household string. We used a screwdriver or a makeshift bradawl of some kind to carefully bore a hole in them before securing them with a double knot. Of course the game was open to skulduggery. ‘Laggies’ as we called them – conkers that were kept from the previous season were almost impossible to break. They were pretty obviously laggies by their wizened and shrunken appearance though so there were usually few takers to play you if you owned one.
More surreptitious was the baking of the conkers in the oven which toughened them up no end and was a treatment difficult to detect by an opponent. Less effective was pickling them in vinegar (are you beginning to understand what a serious business this was?) which toughened the conker but smelt like a chip shop therefore making detection a real possibility. In actual fact all these tactics took a lot of fun out of the game and few actually bothered going to those lengths. It was a game best played with a fresh crop.
The last time I played a game of conkers was some years ago in the name of educating my Canadian partner in the fine arts of the old British game. Unfortunately, as anyone who’s played the game knows there is always the chance of the odd rapped knuckle and so the game ended prematurely! I seldom see a kid collecting conkers these days but to those ‘conkerers’ out there – young and old – enjoy yourselves in the seasonal game and be careful out there!