It’s a centuries-old game that’s been in decline, but some people still go bonkers for conkers
They can be roasted. You can pickle, bake or coat them in clear nail varnish, but that’s frowned upon. Yet they are best au naturel, teased out of their prickly green case to be skewered, threaded on to a piece of string and swung at varying velocities in the direction of another of their kind in nature’s version of a demolition derby.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are talking conkers. And this month we are heading towards that season beloved of schoolboys from the age of 35 upwards.
Yes, it’s conker time!
Since the spring, their parent horse chestnut trees have blossomed and nurtured the fruit until the early autumn when, too heavy for their slender stalks, the chestnuts tumble to the ground.
Then it’s game on…. and it has been for a few hundred years.
Although the first recorded game of conkers was not until 1848, a similar pastime played with hazelnuts – also known as cobnuts – and snail’s shells has been around since the 15th Century. The fruits of the horse chestnut tree did not become involved until well after their introduction to this country from the Balkans more than 100 years later, when initially the nuts were ground and fed to cattle, deer but predominately horses – hence the name horse chestnuts.
However, the origin of the name ’conkers’ is open to debate. It may have been dialect for ‘hard nut’ but is believed to be French, from the word cogner, meaning to bang, or a conch shell – conque.
Safe to say, it’s nothing to do with William The Conkerer.
There are regional variations – it’s called ‘cheggers’ in Lancashire and in DH Lawrence’s ‘Sons and Lovers’ it is referred to as ‘cobblers’. But essentially it’s the same face-to-face combat loved by children of all ages and loathed by school caretakers and the Health and Safety Executive.
Their hostile background almost brought them into the war effort in 1917 when, in a secret initiative, children were offered money by the Ministry of Supply to collect conkers. A shipping blockade in the latter years of World War One had prevented cordite from America reaching Britain’s munitions factories, and it was discovered acetone needed for the production of the compound could be produced from starch, initially from maize but, when that ran short, from horse chestnuts.
Ultimately, though, there were issues transporting the vast quantities needed and the idea was mothballed.
However, it did nothing to dampen the fervour for the game and in 1965 the World Conker Championships were born, albeit in an unlikely setting and even unlikelier circumstances.
Legend has it that a group of anglers in Ashton, Northamptonshire, had to scrap their fishing trip because of bad weather and decided, because there were a lot of horse chestnut trees around the village green, to have a conker tournament instead.
A prize was quickly found and donations were made to a charity for the visually-impaired because one of the competitors had a relative who was blind.
It continued as an annual event, eventually outgrowing its original home and the decision was taken to move just up the road to Southwick, another village on the outskirts of Oundle, where it has been since 2013.
As the championships’ popularity has grown – ironically as general participation has waned because of bruised knuckles and injuries from flying shrapnel – categories have increased. Now there are prizes for the overall champion, plus men’s, women, team, junior and intermediate categories, but they still donate to charities for the visually impaired, raising almost £415,000 over the years.
The event, traditionally held on the second weekend in October, has only once been postponed – and that because of bad weather – although there was reported to be something of a crisis a few years ago when it was feared a dry summer would leave the domestic conker crop smaller and shrivelled. Adequate replacements were tracked down in Germany although it is unclear whether they were used.
This year, however, the championships on October 11 face a potential knockout blow from Covid-19 which could mean 27-year-old Jasmine Tetley from Derbyshire will not put her overall title on the line until 2021. A decision will be taken in early September.
See worldconkerchampionships,com for further details
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