Conker the world
The Horse Chestnut (Aesculus Hippocastanum) was first introduced to Britain from the Balkans in the late 16th century. It is a popular ornamental tree in parks, gardens, town and village squares, churchyards and streets. The tree flowers abundantly from April to mid-May and the “candles” (which are white or red) seem to light up the tree.
The “horse” connection is twofold: (1) Horse Chestnuts were fed to horses in the East as a stimulant and to make their coat shine. (2) The leaf-scars on the twigs have the shape of a horseshoe, including the nail holes.
The fruits of the tree resemble those of the Chestnut tree. They develop in prickly cases, which ripen in September and October. In the late 18th century, the fruits began to be used to play "conkers" – before that, hazelnuts or cobnuts or snail shells were used.
There are about 470,000 horse chestnut trees in Britain. But the numbers will dwindle if local authorities have their way. Conkers and conker playing are now seen as dangerous in our risk-averse society. Conkers have been banned from school playgrounds. Local councils have been pollarding, chopping down or not replacing horse chestnut trees. This is because children may throw sticks to knock the conkers down near a busy road, or simply because they are afraid that a conker will drop on somebody’s head and they will be sued for damages.
Building a reputation through conkers
Most towns and cities want to be seen as distinctive and special; some even want to achieve greatness. Ashton in Northamptonshire has done both through conkers, and it all happened largely by accident.
The village green in Ashton is surrounded by chestnut trees. In 1965, a group of friends at the local pub found themselves unable to go on a fishing expedition due to the bad weather. So someone suggested that they play conkers instead. A small prize was offered to the winner, and money was collected for a blind charity as one of the group had a blind relative. This became the starting point for the World Conker Championships, which has become an an international event. The championships are held annually and each year more and more entrants participate and more and more money is raised for the Royal National Institute for the Blind to pay for Talking Books.
Entrants come from all over the world. In 1976 the title went overseas for the first time – to a Mexican. In 1998 there were nearly 50 overseas players, and the Men's champion was Helmut Kern from Germany. In 2000 the Ladies’ champion was Austria’s Selma Becker.
The success of the championships has led to publicity, sponsorship and celebrity involvement. The event now includes craft stalls and entertainment. To date, around £310,000 has been raised.
Things to do
1. Write to your local council telling them not just to retain horse chestnut trees, but to plant more. They are beautiful trees in any neighbourhood, and they provide people with a lot of pleasure.
2. Look out for diseased horse chestnut trees. They are vulnerable to two diseases, the impact of which is being increased by climate change (warmer winters and wetter springs). The diseases are: “Bleeding Canker”, a virulent fungal disease which affects the trunk and then the tree as a whole, where the symptoms include oozing pus and cancerous growths; and the Horse Chestnut Leaf Miner, a leaf moth from Macedonia which damages the leaves. Check out these websites:
3. This Autumn, start playing conkers. Go to Ashton and participate in the World Conker Championships. Why not? It could be a lot of fun, and you might even win. Then think about what you could do to make your town or neighbourhood great – just like the residents of Ashton have done.
4. Read “England in Particular” by Sue Clifford and Angela King. Horse chestnuts and conker playing are just one of the aspects of English life featured in this encyclopaedia. Also visit the Common Ground website. Common Ground supports local diversity across the UK: www.commonground.org.uk and www.england-in-particular.info
Players’ Rules of Engagement for the Noble Game of Conkers at the Ashton Conker Club World Conker Championships:
1. All Conkers and Laces are supplied by Ashton Conker Club. Laces must not be knotted further or tampered with.
2. The game will commence with a toss of a coin, the winner of the toss may elect to strike or receive.
3. A distance of no less than 8" or 20cm of lace must be between knuckle and nut.
4. Each player then takes three alternate strikes at the opponent’s conker.
5. Each attempted strike must be clearly aimed at the nut, no deliberate miss hits.
6. The game will be decided once one of the conkers is smashed.
7. A small piece of nut or skin remaining shall be judged out, it must be enough to mount an attack.
8. If both nuts smash at the same time then the match shall be replayed.
9. Any nut being knocked from the lace but not smashing may be re threaded and the game continued.
10. A player causing a knotting of the laces (a snag) will be noted, three snags will lead to disqualification.
If a game lasts for more than five minutes then play will halt and the "5 minute rule" will come into effect. Each player will be allowed up to nine further strikes at their opponents nut, again alternating three strikes each. If neither conker has been smashed at the end of the nine strikes then the player who strikes the nut the most times during this period will be judged the winner.