Horse-chestnut trees are among the first to change colour in autumn, and in bright sun their leaves seem to glow like orange neon.
Several magnificent specimens near my home are currently scattering around them a generous crop of spiky chestnuts, to which I have helped myself with misty-eyed nostalgia for the days of playground conker-bashing. At the weekend I came upon another conker gatherer, who also won’t see his 50th birthday again, foraging for a potential champion beneath the line of splendid horse-chestnuts on Ilkley’s Wells Road, but suffered a failure of nerve to challenge him to a match.
Half the fun is in looking for the strongest chestnuts, which according to a popular myth of my childhood always grew right at the top of the tree and required great skill in being knocked down with well-aimed stones or lumps of wood. Size wasn’t a reliable guide to a conker’s X factor, though, because the biggest ones were said to contain more moisture and easily fracture during the first skirmishes.
Sometimes that could be prevented or delayed by subjecting the chestnuts to a variety of hardening processes, secrets which were often handed down from father to son. In Yorkshire, the preferred anabolic steroid for conkers is said to be vinegar, and many argue about whether they should be baked in an oven before or after the soaking.
In Scotland, many swear that an overnight soaking in whisky makes chestnuts unbeatable. Other tricks reported from various parts of Britain include painting a thin coat of clear nail varnish on the chestnut, and giving it a gentle rub with hand moisturiser - apparently this makes the opponent’s conker slide off the treated nut’s surface and reduce the force of impact.
The game seems to be traceable back to the 15th century when children used hazelnuts strung onto a length of twine. One early variant involved a string of snail shells and was known as “conquerors”, which is probably the origin of the word conkers.
Horse-chestnut trees were introduced to Britain from Turkey in the late 16th century and initially planted in great parks like the grounds of Harewood House, and it wasn’t until Victorian times that many of the majestic trees now gracing Britain’s streets and squares were planted and the modern-day game of conkers took shape.
There are now several conker championships for adults. In 1993 the Sheffield-born ex-Monty Python, Michael Palin, was famously disqualified for cheating during one tournament on the Isle of Wight after he was caught using a chestnut he had made as hard as steel with the oven-and-vinegar method, and one suspects that the boyish Palin is rather proud of this blot on his character.
Children, however, seem to be less interested in gathering chestnuts than they were 20 or 30 years ago. Perhaps if someone invented a conkers game that can be played on mobile phones or tablets they might want to experience the real thing.