I Came, I Saw, I Conkered

Do children still recognise the importance of the traditionally noteworthy sixer…

In more normal circumstances it would have been time to forget the Premier League and other minor P.E. based activities as we would have been closing in on one of the most significant dates in the sporting calendar - the World Conker Championships, held on the second Saturday in October in the village of Southwick in Northamptonshire. They’ve been held in that county since 1965 but it seems as though the first recorded game took place on the Isle of Wight in 1848 with countless millions since. This year’s event has been cancelled but hopefully they will be up and running in 2021.

The sight of spiky green spheres and the promise of the potential treasures held within are a real Autumnal pleasure. We may well all be familiar with Horse Chestnut trees, but you may not know that they were first introduced to Britain from the Balkans in the late sixteenth century, quickly becoming a popular ornamental tree. They flower in April and May with the flower spikes, known as candles, being white or pink - occasionally both on the same tree. They get their name from the fruits being fed to horses - said to help create a shiny coat - and also the leaf-scars on the twigs happen to look like horseshoes. The fruits resemble those of the Sweet Chestnut but aren’t really edible and the wood isn’t usually of great quality so is little used in woodworking and doesn’t make great firewood either…

Conker contests were a regular Autumnal fixture at my primary school. Do these playground contests still happen? Do children still recognise the importance of the traditionally noteworthy sixer, or your sixer beating another one and becoming a twelver?

No, I’m not old enough to be in this picture…

In case you weren’t sure, or have never played it’s really simple (although each school, or sometimes each child seemed to have their own rules regarding entangled strings [snags] or conker-to-person contact etc). Each player has a conker, through which a hole has been bored to allow a foot-long length of string to be threaded through and knotted to stop the conker falling off.

(There were many techniques employed to toughen up the prized competitors - the conkers, not the children… They could be roasted or soaked in vinegar, frozen, dried with a hairdryer or covered in boot polish or varnished. Nobody at school, as far as I can remember - although it was in a very rural area - went as far as World Championship winner Charlie Bray who said “The best is to pass it through a pig. The conker will harden through soaking in its stomach juices. Then you search through the pig’s waste to find the conker”)

The first person to go was the one with the highest rated conker, or it was decided by arguing. The receiver would hold out their hand at arms length, the string wrapped twice round the hand and with the conker hanging below; the ‘hitter’, wrapping the string round one hand would then hold the conker in the other hand, drawing it back before swinging it towards that of their opponent. If you hit you keep going, if you miss, you swop over. If you let go of the string you lose your turn, It continues until one has been damaged so much that it disintegrates or just falls from the string. The winner adds the loser’s conker value to their victory score so a sixer could become an eighter and so on. ‘I got a double twelver!’ was the aimed-for call at my school, at which point the conker was retired in triumph to a desk drawer and eventually forgotten about, although the memories haven’t been…

You may get bruised fingers, hit on the arm or head or feel the pain of a prized sixer falling apart after repeated blows but it’ll be worth it…