Wednesday, September 29, 2010

What no Conkers?

When the seeds of the horse chestnut trees start falling on to unsuspecting passers-by and children are racing betweens trees to collect them, it takes me back to my own childhood.

Photo: The Writing Well
My brother and I would collect these treasures too when we were young. We would head off to the woods with our plastic bags and scour the ground for signs of a horse chestnut tree. When we found one we would excitedly grab the nuts from the leaf covered floor, sometimes breaking open the soft, green, spiky shell as we went. These were the nuts that had fallen too soon. Perfect conkers are those that have burst from their casing and landed with a thump on the ground. Mostly, we didn't need to break open the spiky shell - the beautiful,shiny brown conkers would be lying all over the ground, waiting to be scooped up. We would weed out the small, shrivelled conkers when we got home; the aim was quantity before we got to the quality control round.

At home, we would both tip out our bags and sort out the biggest, roundest, hardest specimens. Then we filled empty glass jam jars up with brown, sour smelling vinegar and placed our best conkers in the jars. There they would wallow in their pungent bath for days, sometimes longer if our supply was big enough. We would then make a hole in the centre of each conker with a roundheaded screwdriver and thread a piece of string through the hole; we tied a knot at one end and inspected our work. Satisfied that the specimen was a good one it would be put in our coat pockets or school bag for the next day.

It was time for battle on the playground. In September and October every year across the length and breadth of Britain, kids would play the traditional game of conkers. The game is simple: you let your conker hang at arm's length in front of you with the string wrapped around your hand. Your opponent also wraps their conker string around their hand and takes the conker in their other hand. You opponent then tries to hit your conker with their conker by releasing their conker and striking. Easy huh? But there's more.

If your opponent misses your conker they may try a further two times to hit the target. Once the conker has been hit your opponent then holds their conker perfectly still whilst you have a go at hitting it. If the strings become entangled the first to call "strings" may then take a shot at the other conker. If a conker is dropped or falls to the floor you can call "stamps" and then proceed to jump up and down on it. The game continues until one of the conkers is destroyed. But it still doesn't end there.....

The game of conkers involves scoring. If you hold the winning conker you can take on the points of the other conker that you have annihilated: if your conker is a virgin conker and you smash a conker that is being used for the first time then you get one point and your conker is known as a one-er. If you then go on to beat a conker that has already won a fight, your conker is then a three-er (the one it orginally had, the one it gains for winning this contest and the one your opponent already had). It gets complicated. You also needed to ensure there were witnesses who could testify on the playground that your fifteen-er was really what you said it was. The game of conkers gave birth to playground legends that everyone wanted to beat. Everyone wanted to become the conker champion.

Last year, whilst I watched excited children scurrying like squirrels collecting nuts, I remembered the fun we had had as kids in those two months as autumn descended. My husband asked why I was smiling and I said how all these children would be running home and putting strings through their conkers. And he looked at me blankly. It's a British thing. Dutch children collect conkers for school projects and goodness knows what.

I was stunned. I assumed children across the world played conkers. I found out later that Britain is believed to be the only country that plays this game traditionally. And even there it is dying out - health and safety reasons banning it from most playgrounds..... one thing is for sure - I can't wait to show my sons how to play conkers!

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