About the Horse Chestnut Tree
The Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum) was first introduced to Britain from the Balkans in the late 16th century, but it was not until about 200 years later that the fruits of the horse chestnut trees were used to play "conkers". Before that, "conkers" was played with hazel or cobnuts or snail shells. The Horse Chestnut is a popular ornamental tree in parks, gardens, town and village squares, churchyards and in streets. The tree flowers abundantly from April to mid-May and the flower-spikes (white and sometimes red) are popularly known as 'candles', since they seem to light up the tree.
The fruits of this tree resemble those of the (Sweet) Chestnut tree. They develop in prickly cases, and are ripe in September and October - the 'conker' season.
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. Check it out next time you get the chance!
Some writers think that the prefix 'horse' is a corruption of the Welsh gwres, meaning hot, fierce, or pungent, i.e. 'Horse-chestnut' = the bitter chestnut, in opposition to the mild, sweet one.
Great Britain Population
The National Woodland Inventory of Woodland Trees estimates there are 470,000 Horse Chestnut trees in Great Britain:
- England: 432,000
- Scotland: 29,100
- Wales: 11,100
The wood of the Horse Chestnut is of a poor quality and it is used for purposes such as making packing cases. As a firewood it will both make heat and flame, but it tends to spit a lot.
The nuts are rich in starch but they are not suitable for human food due to the presence of saponins, which are soap-like chemicals. They have been made into a food for horses and cattle in the past, by soaking them first in lime-water so reduce their bitterness. Alternatively they were soaked in water overnight and then boiled for half an hour and the water thrown away. Then they were ground up and added to the rest of the fodder.
Conkers have been carried in the pocket to help prevent piles and rheumatism, and used in wardrobes to keep away moths. According to a letter which appeared in the Daily Telegraph, conkers are an effective way to keep spiders out of the house: conkers, placed in the corners of a room and behind pieces of furniture, reduce the number of spiders venturing into the room. However, over a period, the conkers dry up and lose their efficacy.
The most well-known use of the Horse Chestnut is of course the game of Conkers.
Playing Conkers (Traditional)
The game of conkers probably evolved from a game called ‘conquerors’, which was originally played with snail (conch) shells. A variant of the game was later played with hazelnuts, on strings. By the 20th century these earlier games had almost universally been replaced by the version we now know using horse chestnuts.
There are, of course, many regional variations in the rules of the game and it has also been known by different names. In parts of the Midlands around Worcestershire it was known as ‘oblionker’ (pron. obly-onker) and play was accompanied by such rhymes as ‘Obli, obli, onker, my first conker (conquer)’. The word oblionker apparently being a meaningless invention to rhyme with the word conquer, which has by degrees become applied to the nut itself.
Anyway, that’s enough background! The autumn is the beginning of the season for the game when all over the country children start collecting conkers. You will find them on the ground around horse chestnut trees. They come in prickly green cases. Collect a number of these and break open the cases to reveal the shiny brown conkers.
Choose one conker (a nice big round shiny one) and then bore a hole through the middle of it. Be VERY careful as you do this! Most people use a skewer, but don't hold it in your hand because you could end up skewering your hand (I remember using a metal compass when I was at school, but these days they all seem to be made of plastic and not strong enough for this job). Thread a piece of string through the hole and tie a knot at one end, so that it doesn't pull through. The string should be long enough to wrap twice around your clenched hand and still have about 10 inches (25 cm) left.
A toss of the coin usually decides who starts first - but in the playground this is more often a matter of whoever shouts something like 'Obli, obli oh, my first go.'
Conker on its String
Conker in Mid-Swing and right on Target!
Each player has a their conker on its knotted string. Players take turns at hitting their opponent's conker. If you are the one whose conker is to be hit first, let it hang down from the string which is wrapped round your hand. A 10 inch (25 cm) drop is about right. You must hold it at the height your opponent chooses and you must hold it perfectly still.
Your opponent, the striker, wraps their conker string round his hand just like yours. He then takes the conker in the other hand and draws it back for the strike. Releasing the conker he swings it down by the string held in the other hand and tries to hit her/his opponent’s conker with it. If he misses he is allowed up to two further goes. If the strings tangle, the first player to call “strings” or “snags” gets an extra shot. Players take alternate hits at their opponent's conker. The game is won when one player destroys the other's conker. If a player drops his conker or it is knocked from his hand, the other player can shout “stamps” and immediately stamps on the conker; but should its owner first shout “no stamps” then “stamps” is disallowed and the conker hopefully remains intact.
In playground tournaments a winning conker can then go on to do battle with other conkers, each victory adding to the conker’s score. A conker which has won one battle is called a “one-er”, two battles a “two-er” and so on. So for example, you might overhear a child saying “I beat his fiver with my twoer”. In this case, and depending on which rules you play by, the winning twoer might simply become a three-er or it might become an eighter (two previous victories plus the victory over the fiver plus the five-score of the fiver). In this way winning conkers can quickly accumulate quite large scores!
The kudos of having a high-ranked winning conker is not limited to the playground and there have been many traditional ways of (illegally) hardening conkers before battling. Hardening methods include soaking or boiling the conkers in vinegar or salt water; soaking in parafin; partially baking them for about a half hour in the oven to case-harden them; coating them with clear nail-varnish; filling them with glue or simply storing them in the dark for a year (the shrivelled ones often seem to get the better of the young shiny ones). My favourite however is that described by two-times World Conker Champion Charlie Bray who says, “There are many underhanded ways of making your conker harder. The best is to pass it through a pig. The conker will harden by soaking in its stomach juices. Then you search through the pig’s waste to find the conker.” Yuk!
Here at the World Conker Championships in Ashton, Ashton Conker Club supplies the conkers ready drilled and laced to ensure fair play, thus preventing the use of such tricks to harden the nuts. Competition rules do not allow “stamps”, while “snags” do not give an extra swing - in fact causing “snags” is considered bad sportsmanship and can lead to disqualification. Full rules here.
Conkering Style and Technique
Ashton Conker Club secretary John Hadman says:
"It's a game for 2 people, and it's entirely aggression. Whoever wins the toss of the coin can decide to hang their conker up or to take first strike. In the traditional game, you take 3 swipes at your opponents conker with your own. It's then your turn to hang up your conker and let your opponent have a go. This continues until one of the conkers breaks completely off the string, and the one with the remaining conker, however battered, cracked or tatty-looking, is the winner of that game."
"There's no defence at all. When you're playing, it's natural to flinch when this thing is being swung at you, especially if it comes very close to your knuckles. The best thing to do is look away and think of England or something else."
In the game of conkers, besides thinking of England, there are elements of style and technique to consider.
"There are various stances or swings that they take. Some people favour the overarm swing, where the conker comes down vertically. Others go in from the side or diagonally, reckoning that it's perhaps easier to go against the softer part of the nut -- there is the side-slash, the forward side-slash, and the backhand side-slash."
Unfortunately John doesn’t reveal whether swing or slash is his preferred technique!
This page contains text from www.the-tree.org.uk and is reproduced with their kind permission.