While not a native tree, characterful flowers, leaves and seeds have made the horse chestnut tree so wildly grown that it is (or should be) part of every British childhood. Tough, spiky cases with an inner layer of padding protect large, polished chestnut-coloured seeds (conkers) while they form.
One of my memories of Autumn ’22 will be standing under the canopy of the biggest horse chestnut tree in Bold Venture Park to see if any fine conkers were left in the leaf litter underneath, a habit that dies hard. Better than that, I soon discovered, turn and turn about, conkers tippling their balance from unreadiness to ripeness in a decisive instant were slowly, heavily, falling around me.
Such a normal fact of nature, yet not something we often stop to experience. With a breeze rocking the branches, a chestnut or two landed every minute or so. The tree is on a slope and I watched the conkers thud, bounce and roll.
Their hardened cases are plant versions of the mean-looking spiked balls medieval knights dangled from sticks. Making an effort to discount the chance of one striking me on the head , I found their languid, absent-minded dropping from the tree oddly soothing. More than I had expected were falling without their shells; some fell already bitten. Squirrels’ work.
I picked out two or three to bring home although my conkers-playing days may well be over.
For any readers who have missed out on the game of conkers, here’s how you do it:
Every expert has a different method of selecting and hardening the seeds. Never a conkers extremist, I look for big, round, unmarked ones and just leave them to shrivel. Next, you pierce their centres and hang each one on a knotted string.
The Woodland Trust explains how to ‘check for duds’ and has a detailed 4-step plan, but all boils down to a phrase hidden in step 3, ‘try and bash it’.
An untried conker is a none-er. On its first victory it becomes a one-er, then a two-er and upwards. Knuckles are rapped almost as often as conkers, if my memory holds.
Some local versions of the game decree that when you split a conker, you get a point for the win and inherit all the loser’s victories. Aeschylean rules, giving a nod to the botanical name, Aesculus hippocastanum, add an extra challenge. You lose a point after every three wins (each trilogy of wins) as a reminder that tragedy is unfair, that we should not fall prey to hubris and we ought to have respect for the conquered.*
My pictures, shared for Becky’s WalkingSquares, show a mystery trove I found a couple of days ago near a children’s playground while walking up to Blacksnape.
It’s another chance to wonder. Who would collect so many and abandon them, some still in their shells? A purist? Imagine the excellence of the ones they selected.
* Alright, I confess – I made up the Aeschylean rules.