Conker Picking with my son
As the year turns Autumnal, it's time to look up warily as you walk past a horse chestnut tree, just in case a stick is heading your way on its journey downwards. Yes, it's conker-collecting time, and in parks across the country, eager hunters can be seen throwing missiles into the air, hoping to knock down precious, unopened conker shells.
Generations of schoolboys have gone looking for that perfect conker, ready to challenge their friends on the playground. Of course, it isn't just the males of the species that can be seen swinging the string before the school bell rings. But I do suspect that in most cases, there is a Dad involved behind the scenes; taking his child to the park on a Sunday afternoon, then waving them off into battle the next morning.
There is no official record of the biggest ever conker, but the largest conker championship comprised of 276 matches. That was in 2011, so this peculiarly British tradition is still going strong.
The rules of Conkers are quite basic - tie a string onto your chosen horse chestnut, and take it in turns to swing it at your opponent's. The losing conker is that one that breaks up first. To stand a chance of winning, you need good string, and a straight bore through the conker is better than a spiralled one. Soaking the conker in vinegar or nail varnish will harden your weapon, but the process is rather frowned upon. Instead, you could leave the conker in a cupboard for a year, which will stiffen it, if it doesn't succumb to mould first.
My son has just turned four, so he is a little young to fully embrace the culture of conker challenges. Instead, he just likes to hunt for fallen conkers on the grass under the trees, and take pride in each one found. This means I don't feel the urge to make the effort to remove the conkers from their lofty perch, instead adopting the pose that has given this article its punning title above. That said, on our recent visit to the local park, I felt a tad inadequate when the - more youthful - Dad at the next tree to us freed at least ten conkers, with the use of a painted plank that suggested just a little pre-planning.
We were visiting the park on a Saturday afternoon, and there were lots of other conker hunters milling around the grass. This made for a good atmosphere, but more serious participants (conks? conkerers?) would have come hunting the morning after a particularly windy night. Still, we left with six good specimens which are now lying on the shelf behind me. At the first sight of a spider, they may be scattered around the house to see if they really do repel these less welcome autumn regulars.
It's quite heart-warming to know that some simple customs are passed down from generation to generation, surviving in this increasingly digital world. And with Halloween on the horizon, there will be more on display. No half measures for me there, though. My son is old enough to demand an expertly-crafted pumpkin, so it's time to get practicing