Maybe I am imagining it, but did conkers used to be bigger? Perhaps it is just that I have grown, but even in my daughter’s small hands there are no Goliaths in our selection of shiny brown nuts from our local horse chestnut tree.
Conkers are the very essence of autumn. They signal that blackberry picking is over and it’s time to embrace burnished amber leaves, pumpkins, colder nights and warming fires. They ignite memories of childhood and conker games. They are often our first forged connection with nature, they are instantly recognisable and have a special place in our collective consciousness.
Yet horse chestnut trees aren’t native to Britain. They were introduced around 400 years ago from Turkey and the Balkans, and began their process of naturalisation in the UK after extensive planting by landscapers including Sir Christopher Wren – who planted a mile long pathway of the beautiful tree at Bushy Park, near Hampton Court. (If you’re interested, Invasive Aliens is a great book about all the species we think are native to the UK.) The conkers used to be fed to horses (hence the name horse chestnut) as it was said to add shine to their coats and relieve them of coughs. But to smaller animals and humans conkers are toxic and definitely shouldn’t be eaten or confused with sweet chestnuts which are edible (and also come in a green spiky case). Even the greedy squirrels don’t touch them. Their toxicity is said to keep spiders away. When we first moved into our home I found conkers near windows and hanging from the garage doors. Of course I removed them all. Of course we have hundreds of spiders. It’s an old house.
As I hold a fresh conker in my hand, it is smooth and slick, rather like snakeskin feels. It has been prised carefully from its spiky casing, (if not already split then a gentle squish with a boot works well) which looks like a barbed weapon of war, a flail perhaps. Each conker is, as the saying goes, imperfectly perfect. Slightly wonky in shape, each unique and with beautiful markings like contour lines on a map. Keep them in your pockets and they remain polished as a Morgan dashboard. Yet if left raw and on display the air slowly dehydrates them into desiccated prunes, shadows of their former glory. But still they remain tactile and alluring, drawing my eye with their pleasingly warm brown hues. They give off no discernible smell save for (unsurprisingly) a very faint woody scent.
The first mention of the conker game comes in 1821, but it’s thought a similar game was played earlier with snail shells or acorns. Uncertainty surrounds the origin of the name, possibly from the French word for conque meaning conch, or it was a dialect word that became common. either way, the game gave the conkers their name, not the other way round.
As a child we would spend hours rummaging and foraging for the biggest and therefore best conkers with which to then play conkers. And we found some truly magnificent specimens. So maybe I am not imagining it. Currently horse chestnuts are under threat from parasites like the leaf miner moth which leaves them weakened and susceptible to the bacterial infection canker bleeding which can often be fatal for our beloved trees. In their poorly state they produce smaller seeds. Today we spend just 10 minutes collecting as many conkers as we can, we’re not fussy about their size as these ones are not for conker playing but till decorate my dining table until Christmas time.