Going nuts for conkers!

The playground game comes smashing back as young and old seek alternatives to staring at computer screens

If you go down to the woods today you are sure to see a sight - that of adults and children alike stooping to conker. The humble game of conkers is swinging back into fashion, striking a blow for simpler childhood games in our digital era. The National Trust has reported record numbers of people collecting horse chestnuts. Competitions are proliferating, conker "parties" are the fashion, and even Premier League football stars are eager to get in on the action.

"There are more people gathering conkers than in previous years," reports Nick Champion, of the National Trust. He said Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, with its impressive collection of horse chestnut trees, was a hotspot for families foraging for the nuts. The Trust lists playing conkers in the top 10 of its "50 Things to Do Before You're 11¾" campaign, launched to lure children away from their computers.

The revival is taking hold despite wet weather which has made conkers scarce and those that can be found smaller than usual. The scarcity is so acute in some parts of the country that the organisers of the Scottish championships were forced to cancel the competition.

The game is also making a welcome return to the playground despite concerns that almost one-sixth of schools surveyed by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers banned pupils from playing conkers last year over health-and-safety fears. When one Bristol school ran a conker contest earlier this month it made national headlines. Even the Manchester City football star Mario Balotelli joined in recently after reportedly spotting boys playing as he drove past.

When the Northamptonshire-based World Conker Championships were cancelled last week after organisers failed to find a venue big enough to hold the 400 or so contestants from almost 20 countries, pubs around the country stepped in to hold their own competitions.

Adrian Batstone, the landlord at Ye Olde Bell & Steelyard pub in Woodbridge, Suffolk, oversaw the fourth Inter Pub Conker Contest this year, which saw more than 70 people compete. And almost 200 turned up at the Ship Inn, in Oundle, Northamptonshire, for its conker championships.

Mr Batstone said: "Interest in the game is spreading, by word of mouth. It's quaint, quirky, and doesn't cost a lot of money; just a conker and a piece of string. For a while it seemed like all those lovely old games, like conkers and hopscotch, were disappearing. Now people are looking for something a little more historic."

Keith Flett, from the Campaign for Real Conkers, said he thought the tradition was moving on "from the days of bans and it being thought of as an old man's game".

Patrick Smith, 27, a journalist from Clapton, east London, agrees. He held his first conker party last week. "I felt it would be a lark to dip back into those autumnal childhood days. And indeed it was. Mixed with music and drinking it takes on a more raucous aspect. The addition of a little money running on the outcome helped too."

The current world champion, Ray Kellock, 66, added: "More people are talking about it. The excitement comes from not knowing how you are going to do. It all depends on which conker you have on the end of your string."

How to spot a winner

Go for a firm and symmetrical specimen with no visible cracks.

Smaller is stealthier: the big ones are an easy target.

Some of the best conkers are years old. Sneaky players store them for a year before doing battle.

Dunking does it: put them in water – the best ones sink.

Forget the old wives' tale about soaking in vinegar: baking's best.

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