As a lad, this was the time of year when the humble seed of the horse chestnut took on a very different role. It was the season of the conker fights, a time when we lads – it was almost exclusively lads – took meticulous care in cultivating our own recipe to provide a conker that was capable of smashing all comers brave enough to stand in its way.
First of course we had to find the correct conker. Not any conker would do; it had to be big enough to have the necessary hitting density but not too big as to be too east to hit. We all had our favourite tree, and the tree I favoured was in the garden of a large mansion house near Longwood Compensation reservoir, the rez that we called Woh Carr.
Effort and danger: essential ingredients for a powerful conker
It was an extra thrill having to climb over the boundary wall and scrim up the tree before the owner noticed us and released the hounds. We also made up stories of unspeakable cruelty carried out in his cellar involving disused wine racks and toasting forks, and feeding trespassing kids to his animals. The imagination of young lads holds no bounds when it come to frightening their peers.
I never knew who the chap was. We assumed he was a local dignitary of some sort, but he was quite pleasant about it all really; if he did see us, he would insist that we took the conkers that had already fallen on the ground, which we did while he was watching.We assumed it was the boss man, but it could have been the butler. Anyway, we knew the best conkers were still up the tree, so we snuck back later.because we were certain that the best conker is never the one lying there just to pick up off the ground. To impart real power into the conker, effort and danger had to be endured.
The horse chestnut tree
The horse chestnut tree is a native of the Balkan peninsula, or Greece for people like me who didn’t know where the Balkan peninsula was. It was introduced into Britain in the 16th century and is now found in many gardens and parks but rarely in woodland.
The fruit is a bright green spiky shell that ripens and becomes brown (photo on the left)and then falls to the ground in autumn – in fact, many regard it as one of the signs of winter approaching.
The seed (photo on the right) is then released to potentially grow into another tree, which can live for 300 years. As they tended to do with everything, our forefathers and mothers found a use for the seed: it was ground down to form a poultice and used for generations as a cure for aching joints and to relieve bruising in both humans and livestock. However, in its raw state it is poisonous to both. If soaked a lot and drained to remove the bitterness, it could, at a pinch, be used as a flour or potato substitute, but I wouldn’t risk it.
As young lads in the 1950s, we didn’t know or care about any of this stuff, all we wanted was the biggest and baddest conker that was capable of smashing all comers. The photo on the right shows the biggest and baddest conker for miles around and, as can be seen, the aforementioned tree is still producing magnificent conkers as compared to the pathetic little specimen next to it.
Preparing a conquering conker
Health and safety wasn’t invented in those days and the competitive aggression of boys wasn’t stifled – in the right circumstances of course. As now, bullying was not tolerated but still went on, rowdy competitive contact games were regarded as a healthy pastime for developing boys, and if we received a slap from a potential bully, we were encouraged to slap back and certainly not go whinging to your mum or the teacher, and so it went on.
Preparations for a conker killer were a closely guarded secret, handed down only to the worthy. First, we had to find a tree that produced a giant conker as described above. Some would drill a hole in their conker and just leave it in a cupboard until the next conker season by whichtime it would have become hard, dry and gnarly, while some would bake their conkers in their mother’s oven.
I didn’t have the patience to wait for a conker to dry naturally for a whole year, so my secret was to both soak mine in vinegar overnight and then bake it in mum’s oven for ten minutes – along with something else that mum was baking of course.To suggest lighting the oven just to bake a conker would be met with threats unimaginable, so unimaginable that I didn’t even suggest it. Laying them near the open fire was too unpredictable; it had to be the oven to ensure the correct amount of power and gravitas.
After the first competition with this year’s conker, and I can proudly announce that my giant conker is now a oner.This is even without any prior preparations with vinegar nor Moi’s baking oven.
In memory of a conker hero
The rules of the conker fights – yes. there were rules – was that we first had to establish how many conkers our present adversary had smashed, and the winner would then add that score to their own. Thus, it was common for a conker to build up a large number of victories after only perhaps a few fights.
I remember my best conker ever had a score of over 100 and I also remember the day when it was smashed. Like an old fearless battle-scarred veteran of many wars, it had become weakened by many accurate hits, and it had to go to the conker home in the sky. I’m sure it would have been beaten by an equally gnarled and fearless conker; I certainly would not have risked my one-hundreder on a young whippersnapper who was just out to take advantage of the possible undetected cracks that were bound to have been developing.
After each collision our precious conkers would be closely examined for damage.This was a pointless exercise really, for if we agreed to a conker fight, it was always to the death. But we felt compelled to check on our beloved conker anyway.
I can still see in my mind’s eye the knot at the end of my string with nothing on it. That’s been the story of my life in many ways, a knot at the end of my string with nothing on it.