At long last, England hits the target in grudge match against the Germans

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The Independent Online

Richard Weaver joined his finger and thumb together in a circle and held them to his eye as if they were a monocle. He peered with exaggerated care at his opponent's conker.

Richard Weaver joined his finger and thumb together in a circle and held them to his eye as if they were a monocle. He peered with exaggerated care at his opponent's conker.

"Weee-ver, Weee-ver", chanted his supporters as the man in the red bobble hat took careful aim and brought his nut down forcefully on his opponent's. The crowd roared its approval. "Weee-ver, Weee-ver".

Conkers is supposed to be a game for children but the World Conker Championships, which were held in the Northamptonshire village of Ashton, near Oundle, yesterday are a serious business.

The event restored England's pride, after the disappointing 1-0 football defeat by Germany on Saturday. Mark Tracy, a 39-year-old carpet cleaner, took the world title from the much-fancied German team, from Nauort in Bavaria, which included the former champion, Josef Koberle. Tracy, of Ringstead, North-amptonshire, said after demonstrating England's iron grip on the horse-chestnut game: "At least on this occasion we repelled the German threat after the World Cup qualifier and Grand Prix."

In the walled garden of the old church, off a village green surrounded by picture-book cottages of thatched reeds and honeyed stone, children had gathered for the knock-out competition.

Among the schoolboys and girls there was the earnest,fix-eyed, tongue-protruding concentration that they usually reserve for their Game Boys and Playstations.

"Conkers are better than Pokemon but not so good as Nintendo," said 10-year-old Flynn Nash, after being knocked out in an early round.

But around the adult enclosure was a seriousness of the kind that the English manifest in truly absurd activities such as Morris Dancing and pantomime.

The entrants went to enormous lengths in their choice of fancy dress for the occasion. There were teams of nuns, Vikings, chefs, Worzel Gummidge characters and GIs - "we meant to come as Dad's Army but we left it too late to get the uniforms and this was all they had left," said David Griggs, a manager for Coca-Cola who seemed to have come with most of the occupants of his street from Kettering.

Richard Weaver, a policeman from Castor in Cambridgeshire, and fellow drinkers from the Royal Oak pub - including a builder, a joiner and a bottle-top engineer - had dubbed themselves The Charity Shop Raiders and set themselves a £10 limit for outfits in the best Pythonesque tradition of comic dressing.

All around were the usual trappings of an English country fete - coconut shies, ball-in-the bucket stalls, goldfish in plastic bags, candy floss, fudge, egg and bacon bap, announcements about lost toddlers and mums saying the like of: "Alex, don't blub and wail so."

They were serving that quintessentially English dish, curry and chips, alongside a dozen real ales and scrumpy at The Chequered Skipper pub, where the competition began in 1964 when a fishing trip was cancelled and the anglers played conkers instead.

The proceedings were charged with irony. There was in it all an endearing display of self-conscious eccentricity and that singularly English quality of being deadly serious about something fundamentally silly.

Novice players developed a conker jargon, in a nicely observed parody of standard sports speak. There was a similar wilful self-deprecation about the commentary over the loudspeakers, sprinkled with jokes about big knockers that would have graced a Carry on Conkering script had anyone got round to writing it.

Even teams from Ireland, Germany and America seemed infected by the spirit. "We have come here from the Conkeringship Competition in our willage," said Gretal Kern, the German contingent from Navourt, the area's twin town. "We set it up after our last wisit here, when one of our group von the vorld championship."

It was as if the whole event had been made-up by Tom Sharpe. And in one sense it is a confection.

St John Birkett, a local headmaster, said: "Children don't seem to turn to seasonal activities like conkers unless you remind them. You don't see any conkers in the playground until the staff organise the school conker competition."

Even Rachel Mintern, who yesterday became the under-11 world champion, admitted she preferred watching television to playing conkers. She only plays because her mum, Lisa, collects the horse-chestnuts as she walks their dog. "You have to keep these old traditions alive," Lisa said.

"Especially, now Pokemon cards have been banned from our school," added Rachel.

There was a gasp from the crowd. Richard Weaver, the favourite, had had his conker shattered by a single blow.

"I'm gutted," he told the press afterwards. "I blame the rain. It provided a plentiful harvest but the conkers are very soft this year," he added, making no mention of the Hague-like quantities of ale he had consumed since the beer tent opened at 10am.

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