Conkering a crisis

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My brother Andrew in his conkering heyday
Horse Chestnuts
Conkers can be found up until November depending on the summer weather

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 3rd November 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 1st November 2017)

I associate conker time with the children going back to school, so it surprised me to read in Dad’s column of October 30th 1976 about the plentiful conker harvest, as it seemed so late in the year. But I’ve discovered that horse-chestnuts can ripen from August right through to early November, depending on the weather during summer.

As soon as they were ripe my three boys would begin conker-gathering but, unlike my own childhood, I recall few occasions when we actually turned them into competitive ‘stringed’ conkers for the school playground. I got into the habit of keeping a carrier bag on my person at all times for the inevitable daily conker-gathering. The bag solved the problem of finding mouldy, festering conkers in unexpected places like trouser pockets, coat pockets, school bags, washing baskets, toy boxes, down the sofa and who knew where else! It didn’t, however, solve the problem of having bagful after bagful to deal with (if you’ve ever experienced the death howl of a child discovering their treasured (mouldy) conker collection has disappeared, you’ll understand why I never just chucked them away).

I came up with an ingenious solution though. “Let’s make a Conker Garden!” I announced enthusiastically one day. The boys responded with unexpected delight. At last, they had something they could do with their conkers, and I would never have to touch a mouldy conker ever again.

For those of you experiencing a conker crisis, here are my step-by-step instructions on how to create your own Conker Garden. Please follow them very carefully:

Step one: Collect conkers in a carrier bag

Step two: Decide where your conker garden will be

Step three: Tip out your bag of conkers in designated spot

Step four: Repeat daily

It was a shame that we didn’t find a better use for them, as I had such fond memories of conker competitions myself. We did lace up a few over the years, but it just didn’t catch on with my boys and their peers, perhaps as a result of being brought up in an age where technology overtook traditional playground pastimes.

My brother was a great conker fan though, and according to my dad’s column, was determined to become the 1976 School Champion. Dad was ‘Coach Conker’ and had passed on the secrets of top conkering, such as soaking them in vinegar and keeping them in a drawer for a whole year, after which they emerged like shiny little brown balls of concrete. My dad taught him to drill his holes in exactly the right place (dead centre), and with the correct diameter (the same width as the string or shoelace it would hang upon. Too large would result in weakening the conker). The knot securing it had to be just the right size, not too big or too small. Points were scored by smashing another conker. So if you defeat one, you are a oner, defeat two, and you become a twoer and so on. If a twenty-sevener knocks out a forty-niner, it becomes a seventy-sevener, by adding all the points together, plus one for the victory.

Dad must have felt a surge of pride in seeing my brother’s prize conker on the brink of stardom. It had smashed many naïve young conkers to bits and had earned the esteemed rank of a 108er. But family hopes were dashed when his run came to a bitter end at the hands of a sneaky adversary who knew the trick of getting the strings tangled. This subversive tactic enabled him to yank my brother’s shoelace out of his grip and propel the conker onto the floor, where he promptly stamped on it. My brother was crestfallen, but this was a legitimate move in those days. The blow was softened when the sneaky boy’s young, softer conker only made it one more round before being demolished by the more deserving hard shell of a cultivated opponent.

The tradition of conker competition is still going strong in the form of the World Conker Championships hosted every year by the Ashton Conker Club in Northamptonshire. My brother might be saddened to learn that he would not be permitted to bring his own specially-prepared specimen as the club provides all the conkers and strings. But he will be pleased to know that deliberate string-tangling can lead to disqualification, and stamping on fallen conkers is no longer allowed.

Carry a marrow to school? Must be nuts!

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Me in my Brownie uniform and my sister Tricia in her Girl Guide uniform in our back garden in 1975
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Our cottage from the back garden in the 1970s

(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 27th October 2017, & the Gazette & Herald on 25th October 2017)

 

It’s a shameful admission, but I didn’t read my dad’s columns growing up. I was only a child when Dad took over Countryman’s Diary and I was far more interested in playing with my friends than the ‘boring’ stuff he was up to. Presenter Aasmah Mir pulled me up about it when I was on BBC Radio 4’s Saturday Live show on September 2nd. “Hang on a minute, you weren’t always nine!” she admonished me. The only explanation I have is that I never got into the habit of reading his columns, and it never occurred to me to do so once I was an adult (I did read some of his books though, just not all 130!).

In a way, I’m glad I didn’t, because I’m reading them now with completely fresh eyes, finding out things I never knew, learning about the countryside, folklore and traditions alongside discovering memories about our family life that I’d long since forgotten. It’s such a brilliant way of keeping a connection with Dad now he’s no longer here, as if he’s passing his knowledge on to me from beyond the grave.

When I read his column from October 23rd 1976, I discovered that he’d included a story that related directly to me, and one which I cannot remember at all (I never had any idea that I’d made it into the paper, which is probably a good job, or the fame might have gone to my head!).

He explains: “Our youngest daughter, aged nine, announced that she had to take to school some fruits of the hedgerow … and accordingly she disappeared up our garden the other morning and returned with elderberries, wind-blown apples, rose hips, haws, Damson plums, beech mast, an acorn, ivy and holly berries, and assorted weed seeds.” (Beech mast? I had to look that up and found that it refers to the fruit of a beech tree. The word ‘mast’ means a bumper harvest of fruit and nuts).

You have to admire my enthusiasm in collecting such an eclectic array of ‘fruits of the hedgerow’. But I didn’t stop there, having spotted a giant marrow that someone had given Dad. I told him that I thought it qualified as ‘fruit’ for my collection and he said I could take it to school if I could get it there. “It’s not an easy matter for a nine-year-old girl to transport a two and a half stone, 2ft 6in marrow to school…but she solved it by using the garden wheelbarrow and enlisting the services of a little girl next door. Together they trundled their fruit collection through the village street, panting and heaving, and holding the marrow in position, for it reached over the sides of the barrow.”

I can’t remember this incident, nor can I remember my head teacher’s reaction on my arrival, but according to Dad, he painted two eyes on it and left it staring at us all day long.

I managed to achieve a small victory during my forage in the garden by finding a green fruit, about the size of a plum, that initially flummoxed my dad. This was a rare achievement, as he was so knowledgeable about most things country. On closer inspection, he deduced it was an almond, the outer inedible flesh, known as the drupe, hiding the recognisable nut within.

Although more commonly associated with the USA, Spain and the Middle East, almond trees do grow in the UK, and need a warm sunny spot. The reason Dad didn’t recognise the fruit was no doubt because our tree rarely produced any. But thanks to the long, hot 1976 summer, ‘it brought forth a couple of almonds’. He meant that literally. There were two on the whole tree.

Almonds are part of the prunus, or peach, family that includes other stoned fruit such as cherries and plums. Raw and dry-roasted almonds are one of the healthiest snack you can eat, with an ounce (28g) containing more calcium than any other nut, plus 9g of monounsaturated fat (the healthy fat) and 3.5g of fibre. They can also be used to make an alternative to cows milk, or turned into almond butter. The species from our garden, known as the Jordan Almond, was supposed to be ideal for making potions to cleanse or exfoliate the skin, and its oil was very good for massaging aching limbs.

Sadly, we didn’t have enough to even think about creating any of these wonderful products. One little almond went to school, and the other stayed at home.