There are only a few horse chestnut trees in Buentoille proper, though there are plenty of them in the forests nearby. There is the Wizard’s Tree, that grows out of the side of the Guilgamot district cliff face, a venerable old thing, long-gnarled by the weather and, its roots well knotted to the precipice. There is the Starvom Yard horse chestnut, access to which is normally gained by climbing up the Yard’s wall, where the bricks have been chipped away, even now that the doors are left open to let the local children in. In the last few days there has been a flurry of activity around these trees, children combing the ground and branches for the best conkers, getting ready for The Annual Municipal Conker Championships.
There are a few other trees as well, each with its own adherents, believers in the strength of the conkers that their tree produces. These adherents form factions within the Championships today, groups who still compete against each other, but who, if defeated, will cheer on another person who sourced their conker from their tree. They each have narratives, spurious logic that explain why their chosen tree produces the strongest conkers; the Winery House Tree, for example, is said to have imbibed a great deal of vinegar (gone off wine poured out onto its roots by the Winery House staff over the years), a common ingredient used to harden conkers which is supposedly pre-infused into its harvest as a result.
Using vinegar and the various other ways of processing or treating conkers to improve their hardness are, mostly, allowed by the Championships; the rules are fairly loose, but they do disallow using varnish, shellac or other agents which form a barrier between the outer skin of the conker and whatever it is striking. There are other rules governing the material condition of conkers, too: ‘The body of the conker must be intact and not scooped out more than is necessary to pass the string through it, and no replacement of flesh should be countenanced.’ These rules were once absent, but had to be introduced when it was revealed that the winner of the 1882 competition had used a hard-setting resin peppered with ball bearings to improve their conker. There have been other such scandals; in 1729 there was uproar when the girl who had won the Championships for the last seven years admitted to using a stone which had merely been polished to look like a conker.
For those unfamiliar with this children’s game which pervades school yards for most of the autumn, the rules are generally quite simple: a conker is drilled or skewered through, a string or shoelace is placed through the resulting hole, and knotted at one end, and then, in turns, one player dangles their conker from the end of its string whilst the other swings theirs into it at great velocity, attempting to shatter it. If your conker breaks, you lose. There is obviously a certain amount of skill in the swinging, but the deciding factor is usually the strength of the conker, its ability to absorb, reflect and withstand the impact. The choice of conker is obviously a large deciding factor in the strength of each competitor’s arsenal, with shape, water content, size and thickness of skin all being considered by the adroit harvester.
The treatment of the chestnut is for some where most of the game’s skill resides, and there are family recipes which have been handed down through the generations, most of which involve some different combination of vinegar, oven-heating and ageing; there are no rules about the age of a conker and many of the children harvesting over the last few days will have had next year’s competition in mind (it seems that keeping a conker in a cool, dry place for a year does wonders for its durability). Some swear by covering the chestnut in glue for a year, forming an air-tight seal which is later peeled off. There is a very large conker in the Degglan family called ‘Baldy’ that has been used since 1911 and which remains undefeated, though it has not been entered every year as there have not always been children young enough to enter (The Children’s Union stipulates that entrants must be 14 and under). Legend has it that when the conker is finally broken, the family line will end.
The Championships will take place in Heyfall Square today, inside a specially constructed ring, and will be accompanied by several traditional songs performed by the children, such as ‘Hey Nonny Hit the Thing Straight, Sonny’ and ‘Ouch My Thumb!’. The winner receives a golden conker on a gold chain, and a basket of eating chestnuts to be eaten in the winter, roasted next to an open fire. This year there are lots of exciting rumours surrounding a child with the Vision, who claims one of the Secret People pointed out to her a Master Conker which can beat any who dare come against it.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Festival of the Shoddy Painting
- A Festival of Obtuse Misunderstanding
- The Guild of Lichen Appreciators’ Autumn Excursion