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.

Harvesting the good will of the village

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 22nd September 2017, & the Malton Gazette & Herald on 20th September 2017)

T’is the season of the harvest festival where churches up and down the land welcome donations from their generous congregations to help people suffering hardship. I remember as a child the altar and window ledges of our local church being laden with fresh produce of the season, including carrots, potatoes, marrows, apples, pears and tomatoes. I also remember oranges, but obviously these exotic interlopers must have been flown in especially for the occasion to provide an extra splash of colourful glamour to the muted hues of our home-grown exhibits.

In his column from 18th September 1976, Dad describes how churchgoers only brought their finest examples which were spruced up and polished to perfection: ‘Somehow the fruit on display looks more tempting that it did at home…It seems the people bring forth their best for this service,’ he says. There’s no doubt that a whiff of rivalry hovered over parishioners who determined whether competing donations were up to standard. Woe betide anyone seen to be bringing in some unfortunate malformed marrow or a misproportioned potato.

I felt similar pressures when my children were at primary school. By then, harvest festival had become more about helping those less fortunate than yourself than about celebrating the bounty of the harvest. I’ve been trying to find out why, and some sources suggest it is because these days, our locally-grown produce ripens much earlier than mid-September. Certainly, the apples in my garden are about done and the blackberries, elderberries and sloes on my dog-walking routes are more or less over. Others suggest it’s because we have lost seasonality in our produce, with growers being able to ripen fruit and veg all year-round with the help of artificial sources of heat and light.

The truth probably lies somewhere between but I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being one of those mothers who could be found digging around in the kitchen cupboard late of an evening after one of the children had told me that they needed a donation for the school harvest service the following morning. We had to provide non-perishable food or toiletries which would be given to the homeless and people living in poverty. These were the days before late-night-opening shops were within easy distance (today’s parents of young children have no idea of the difficulties we suffered!). So it was usually a toss-up between baked beans, tomato soup, or an out-of-date tin of plum tomatoes (bought by mistake instead of chopped tomatoes and left to languish. Who has the time to chop plum tomatoes?). And obviously, brands were always donated before own brand for fear of being thought a cheapskate. I do wonder how many tins of beans, soup and tomatoes ended up on the church altar, and now feel a pang of guilt for inflicting this uninspiring collection of tomato-based foodstuffs on people who couldn’t choose what they were given.

The word harvest comes from the old English word ‘haerfest’ which referred to the period between August and November, now called Autumn. A Rev. Robert Hawker from Cornwall reportedly started the Christian tradition in 1843 by offering communion bread made from the first corn of the harvest, although the festival itself began life as a pagan celebration many centuries earlier.

Dad loved his food, especially a good old Yorkshire curd tart, and so it’s no surprise that for him, the highlight of the festival was the harvest supper. As he explains: ‘The ladies of the village forget their differences and bake mountains of fresh bread, cakes, pies and buns, and these are laid out beautifully on white clothed tables in the village hall.’ According to my mum, after the supper all the produce that had been brought to church would be sold off to raise much-needed funds. Where I live, the annual harvest supper no longer takes place, but I’d be interested to find out if this tradition still persists elsewhere.

I’d be even more interested to know what differences the ladies of my village had to put aside to work together for the harvest supper? Suggestions on a postcard please…

 

Who was the Countryman?

 

The Countryman was my dad, Peter N Walker (aka Nicholas Rhea), who died on 21st April 2017 from prostate cancer.

He was a full-time writer for more than 35 years, and before that, wrote in his spare time from his job as a policeman. He wrote stories based on his experiences and they were turned into the hugely successful TV series Heartbeat. But he also wrote much more, including crime novels, detective novels, short stories, local history books, collections of folk stories and tales, and also columns for local papers.

When he was younger, he used to read the Countryman’s Diary in the Darlington and Stockton Times by a well-known writer and local history expert, Major John Fairfax-Blakeborough. The Major had always been an inspiration and source of encouragement to my dad, who dreamed of taking over his column, so when he passed away, Dad was thrilled to be invited to take over. He continued that column for 41 years, and another (Rural View) for around 30 years in the Malton Gazette and Herald. Despite his success, he had a huge sense of loyalty and would not give up the weekly columns, continuing right up until a couple of weeks before his death, although towards the end, they were a struggle for him.

After his death, I began to wonder what would happen to his columns, and felt it would be a shame for them to simply disappear after so many years. With support from my family, I called the editors of the papers who readily agreed to my taking them over, even though I don’t have Dad’s writing pedigree, nor his extensive knowledge of all things country and Yorkshire. But, as my brother pointed out, I do have access to my dad’s archive, 40-plus years’ worth of columns to draw upon.

So I decided to take each column from the same week 40 years ago and see what I could use to inspire my column for today. What I have found is not only a wealth of material, but that it is bringing back some memories that were long-since forgotten, memories of my dad, and of our family, of which he was so proud. And it feels like I am getting to know my dad in a way I never expected nor thought possible. It’s an honour to be able to do it and, step by step, week by week, it is helping me make my way along the long road of grief that his passing has left behind.

Sarah xxx