Saturday, 20 November 2010

She came. She saw. But did she conker?

Ah, autumn.
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, bringing back memories of shushing though piles of fallen leaves, rosy cheeks and frozen noses, and playing conkers in the school yard.

But did you know that the good old horse chestnut (a.k.a. conker) tree is NOT a native to Britain, but a migrant from... Greece and Albania?

And yet, somehow I can't see the Greeks embarking on the annual orgy of smashing your opponents' nuts (in the nicest possible way, of course) that generations of British schoolkids have enjoyed.

Time and time again, I have tried to explain the rules and reasoning of conkers to the Ovver Arf. He sits there patiently, giving me the indulgent look of one humouring a slightly dim but lovable child, while I try to convey my enthusiasm for scrabbling about in the wet grass to find the perfect shiny brown conker with which to annihilate my rivals' feeble offerings.

His demeanour is one of "OK, that sounds like the sort of thing you Brits would do. But why?"
To be honest, I don't have an answer.

It's just one of those things that is (or at least was) an integral part of growing up in the UK. No rhyme or reason is required - it just IS.

Just like he can't explain why Greeks traditionally fly kites on the first day of Lent, why Greek grannies tie a red and white knotted string bracelet round their grandchildren's wrists every 1st March, or why taramosalata (made from fish eggs) is allowed during the Lenten fast when both fish and eggs are forbidden.

But I digress - back to conkers.
For the unitiated, to play the game first you must find to take a large, hard conker and carefully drill a hole through it. Then thread a piece of string through the hole and knot one end. Next, find your opponent - similarly conkered up of course. And then you proceed to take it in turns to hit one another's conkers with your own. This goes on until one is one is smashed, and the status of the winner is enhanced according to how many victories it has clocked up (one-er, two-er, six-er, etc.).

That's it. Nothing more, nothing less. But it used to keep us occupied for hours.

Now, in these days of extreme Health & Safety awareness, I fear that conker fights may be a dying tradition. I have certainly heard of schools banning them (not for fear of shards of smashed nut flying into kids' eyes or bruising juvenile knuckles, but in light of possible nut allergies).

But I hope that despite the new age of precautions, and the twin siren calls of TV and games console, the autumn air in my homeland still fills with the sound of horse chestnuts cracking against each other.

As for me, I'm off to the Greek countryside in search of a conker tree in it native habitat.

I may be some time.


  1. Being Sri Lankan I hadn't a clue what you were talking about so thanks for educating me. Always interesting to learn something new. Sad about the banning though! We have similar stuff at home that children today never seem to play at all.

  2. I loved playing conkers at school! Soaking them in vinager ;) oh yea! hardcore conkering!