If you go for a walk through the English countryside at this time of year, every gust of wind is accompanied by a patter of tiny thumps. Like tree versions of Jor-El, Horse Chestnuts wrap their young in spiky balls and propel them into the unknown to seek their fortune. If you’re a conker tree, this is the month you’ve ringed on your calender. This is the big push.
Conkers are a delight. Looking like flattened balls of furiously polished wood (which isn’t too far from the truth), they’re something you have to pick up, have to rub experimentally between thumb and finger-tip. They’re just the right size and weight for throwing. I suspect this is the result of thousands of years of conker tree experimentation upon human beings. It’s all very clever of them. Give a tiny child a conker and one of two things will happen: either the child will try to eat it (a bad idea – they’re toxic) or will fling it away with an excited gurgle.
Older children and teens, though – they have another use for them. The traditional sport of Conkers is a cornerpost of the whole edifice of British culture (no, really). Everyone in the UK has drilled a hole through a horse chestnut seed, strung and knotted it and gone to war – in the playground, by the river, surreptitiously behind desks. They’ve swung and battered and flinched and they’ve enjoyed the glow of victory and the wistful sadness of watching their nearly-famous conker burst like a rotten apple, leaving nothing but a pathetic scrap of string for everyone to mock.
We’ve all played it. Some of us, like the notorious rule-flaunter Michael Palin, have cheated been found to have creatively reinterpreted the rules during competitions, employing techniques such as soaking their conkers in substances that harden them and then baking them in an oven. (Disgraceful. Also, it usually doesn’t work – I found about 6 in every 10 of them split before they were removed).
And if you’re wondering what European schools think of a percussion sport with the potential for everyone getting bits of exploded tree in their eye…that debate is still going on.
Now you’ll have to excuse me: I’ve got a couple of conkers to throw over the hedge.