On my last post about growing up in South Milford, Donna said “I am puzzled as to what in the world conkers are?”
After doing a little bit of research (otherwise known as “looking at Wikipedia”) I discovered that conkers are a quintessentially English thing, something I didn’t realize. Apparently the game has also all but died out now, which is hardly surprising since kids have far more sophisticated entertainment available to them these days.
A conker is a horse chestnut – when it falls off the tree it’s in a little green case, but when you take off that case, it’s a shiny, hard nut:
To play conkers, you drill or poke a hole in the conker, thread a piece of string through it, and then two players hit each other’s conker until one smashes the other.
Your conker was named according to how many other conkers it had smashed. So if it had beaten two other conkers, it would become a “two-er.” Get all the way up to six and you had a “sixer.” In truth most conkers never made it that far, but I think most of us pretended at least one of ours had.
Apparently horse chestnut trees have been growing in Britain since they were introduced in the 1600s, but they weren’t everywhere. So when you came across a collection of conkers lying on the floor, it was a real thrill. A treasure trove of possibilities! You had to find one where the green spiky casing was already half off because the ones that were still sealed inside weren’t hard enough to make champions out of. Then you’d peel off what was left of the casing and try to judge how tough each conker was. Sometimes you felt sure you had found a sixer just laying there on the ground. This was the one! You just knew it! Watch out all the other conkers, because this one is coming to get you!
Once you had a collection of good conkers, you had to make them harder. Apparently some people soak them in vinegar. I think we just baked them in the oven although I really can’t remember.
I suppose the old couple who let us collect conkers from the base of their tree were just glad to have them tidied up. They had a huge garden, all lush green lawn and willow trees. I only went in a couple of times but I remember thinking it was a magical place and imagining all the fun I could have if it was my garden. (We didn’t have a garden because my dad had taken his typical problem-solving approach to lawn maintenance by pouring concrete over the little patch of what would have been grass).
To be honest, I don’t think we played conkers with most of the ones we found. Mostly we just liked collecting them. Or at least I did. First, they were absolutely beautiful – so many complex shades of brown and such a deep shine. And second, they were all little warriors to me. In my mind, each one had its own unique personality. That one was brave but foolhardy. This one was quiet but strong. That one needed to think before he jumped in with both feet. I don’t know if I ever thought about it exactly that way at the time, but looking back I remember how magical my little pile of conkers felt to me.
Here’s an adorable video I found on Youtube of little kids collecting conkers with their scoutmaster. Look how excited they are!
Once we’re back in England, I bet I won’t be able to resist picking up a few conkers the first time we pass by a horse chestnut tree. Maybe Phil will be up for a game?