By P.S. Gifford
First off I should explain what a conker is. They are horse chestnuts which have been drilled through the center and threaded with a short piece of string or a shoe lace.The concept is a simple one. You dangle your conker as your opponent takes a swing at it with his. Then you hit your opponent’s conker and repeat until the opposing one cracks and falls off the string.
Gripping stuff when you are an eight or nine-year-old growing up in England let me tell you. As a child, I would spend hours in the local woods, as nature began to work its magic, in search of the perfect specimens. (Charmingly enough my local wood is still there now although now it is an animal preserve- and that photograph I took a February last year.) Then I would race home on my bike, pedaling as fast as my short-trousered covered legs could go, with my prizes secured in my bike pack.
Into the garage I would race, attempting to contain my excitement and fully recapture my breath, and place the finest of the bunch in my father’s vice. The vice was a vintage one even back then and was securely clamped to his work bench. Taking his hand drill- which was manual not electric- I would attach a bit and ever so carefully make a hole through the center. This was the preferred method as it damaged the conker least. Then taking about a foot of string from the ball (balls of strings were in every self-respecting father’s workshop back in the sixties and seventies- and probably still are) I would thread my conker and tie a large knot at the end. I would typically repeat the process half a dozen times or so- to be armed and ready for any future opponents, dreaming of future victories and the glory they would bring. As a bespectacled child, more comfortable lost in a book then chasing a ball around a field I could never successfully compete with my classmates at more formal sports, but this was a way of getting my own back
Scoring is a simple process. An unchallenged conker is a ‘none-er’. After victory, your conker becomes a ‘one-er’. And if the losing conker had previous victories you take on those also. Meaning if they had won two previous battles yours would be called a ‘three-er’, and so on….
A few stinkers out there would try and cheat of course. They might bake their conker, pickle it, or coat it in clear nail polish or some form of sealer. But, of course, you could almost always spot a cheat and they were highly frowned upon. Checking an opponent’s conker for tampering became a skill in its own right, and smelling it was a key part of this process.
The game came into popularity in the 1850’s- and it has remained a favorite activity ever since; although most schools frown upon it being played there these days for safety reasons. I do recall occasionally being struck on the knuckles by a bad aimer- and the occasional piece of conker shrapnel hitting me in the face.
As I sit here, typing out these words, I can remember it vividly despite it being forty years ago. There was a definite skill involved, and one I prided myself in having developed; striking the opponent’s conker with accuracy and perfect speed. I had no idea then just how happy I was, does any child truly appreciate the innocent joys of childhood ever until they reminisce of days gone by?
Oh, I never did become the school champion, but I did beat a few of the jocks at conkers in a few exciting games and was rewarded by applause and short-lived admiration by my friends. Trust me that was more than enough for me. In fact I am smiling at the memory of it even now.