by Heather Elvidge
Last week’s strong winds dislodged leaves prematurely, especially from trees stressed by dry ground. Among the leaves below horse chestnuts there are a few spiky seed cases. Could any of them contain a champion conker?
The heaviest cases conceal the fattest nuts, so ignore any lightweights. Back home, open the cases and drop the conkers into a bowl of water. The best ones will sink — the others are probably damaged inside.
A children’s book of 1856 has the first reference to a game played with horse chestnuts. Knocking nuts together wasn’t new: in the seventeenth century hazel or cobnuts were used and before that, snail shells. “Conkers” comes from the old snail-shell game, which was known as Conquerors.
Horse chestnut trees were introduced from Turkey in the late sixteenth century, to add some glamour to private estates. There they stayed until Victorian times, when people began to spread the shiny nuts around.
The handsome trees appeared on village greens and beside blacksmith’s workshops, where their heavy shade was appreciated in summer.
Because they contain a soap-like substance, conkers are the nuts that we can’t eat. Yet in their homeland they were soaked, boiled, and chopped into horse feed. That, and the horseshoe-shaped mark left when a leaf parts from a twig, account for the horse connection.
Conkers could yet turn out to be useful, at least for arachnophobes.
This is the time of year when spiders invade our houses, planning to stay for the winter. If you rather they didn’t, try dropping fresh conkers in the corners of every room — the nuts are said to drive spiders away.
Champs and cheats
Last year was a poor one for wild fruit of all kinds. A shortage of nuts led to cancellation for the World Conker Championships, but this year they’re back. The Ashton Conker Club is staging its big charity event in Northamptonshire on October 13. See www.worldconkerchampionships.com
Can’t make it? Then why not stage your own contest, aided by these handy tips.
In the interests of fairness, all competition conkers should be the same shape and size. But there’s more fun to be had with a wedge-shaped cheeser, especially when it’s been thoughtfully prepared.
Steeping in vinegar, baking in a slow oven, and coating with varnish are all tried and tested ways to toughen up your conker.
Failing that, search drawers for forgotten conkers from previous years, which will be as hard as rocks.
A clean, round hole is stronger than a ragged one, so forget skewers or knitting needles and use an electric drill. In the event of a tangle, leather bootlaces will always outperform string, allowing you to stamp on your opponent’s nut when it lands on the floor.
Flip a coin to determine who has first hit. A “go” is three hits; players take turns until one conker is smashed. A miss gives the other player an extra hit.
If spectators are becoming comatose, there’s always the option of a penalty shoot-out.
A conquering conker adds the wins of its opponent to its own tally of victories.
So a three-er beating a six-er becomes a ten-er.
As it’s impossible to keep track, nobody will notice if you add a few more.