Hail the conkering heroes

You don't have to be nuts to take part in the World Conker Championships, but it certainly helps.
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The Independent Online

Charlie Bray appears from behind a horse chestnut tree looking like a pearly king who has been in the oven. He is studded from head to foot with dark-brown blobs. Closer inspection reveals that the 80-year-old gamekeeper from Whitchurch, Hampshire is, in fact, covered in conkers.

Charlie Bray appears from behind a horse chestnut tree looking like a pearly king who has been in the oven. He is studded from head to foot with dark-brown blobs. Closer inspection reveals that the 80-year-old gamekeeper from Whitchurch, Hampshire is, in fact, covered in conkers.

Not only are his cap, trousers and shoes festooned with the shiny nuts, but he is also sporting a conker bow tie, as well as a conker Hawaiian skirt. He proudly points to a string of nuts hanging around his thin neck - the beauties which won him the World Conker Championships in 1979.

Today, in the Northamptonshire village of Ashton, near Oundle, Bray is hoping to walk away with the 1999 title. For the last month, he has been practising his technique with a squash ball suspended from a microphone stand. ''I'm known as a side-swinger,'' he says. ''Most people donk, which is a forward thrust. If you hit it on the side it makes harder contact.''

This time there is even more pressure to win. Last year a German - Helmut Kern, a 40-year-old postman - walked off with the title. ''I'm not saying anything about that," says Bray, his white moustache twitching. ''I was a soldier.''

Darting in and out of a caravan which is serving as mission control is John Hadman, secretary of the Ashton Conker Club, which organises the championships. The 67-year-old former archaeology teacher from Oundle recounts how the games started.

''In 1965 a group of locals were hoping to arrange a fishing trip, but they had to call it off. They were sat in the village pub, crying into their beer, when they noticed all the conker trees outside and challenged each other to a game.'' The championships, now in their 35th year, have so far raised £162,000 for charities for the blind.

From behind the caravan comes the sound of raucous laughing. It turns out to be a group of eight neighbours from Kettering who are all dressed as nuns. The Holy Order of Virgin on the Ridiculous is also determined to win this year.

When asked about the title going to a German last year, Sister Tania Hyde - a 38-year-old nurse, Trudy Rollings - rolls her eyes to heaven. ''We will win it back for Britain,'' she promises, as the others start chanting: ''Conkers are coming home!''

A coach rolls up carrying 24 people, all of whom are sporting berets. Pink signs on the windows bear the words "French National Conker Team, England '99. We'll be the Champions". Vice-captain Stéphane Jally, 26, the self-styled ''Cantona of conkers'' who won the French championships in 1995 and 1996, boasts that his secret weapon is his ''big strike''.

The Irish team have a different game plan. Captain Tom Treacy, a 47-year-old engineer originally from Co Mayo, says: ''Last year we decided we would get knocked out at the first round, so we could go to the bar. We almost made it, but we were let down by one member of the team who got into the third round. We're hoping to get knocked out as soon as possible again this year. We had a practice session in the garage two days ago, and we were absolutely hopeless. We've had a little drop of whiskey, as that's the key to failure.''

This year, 256 men, 64 women and about 150 children have entered, also representing France, Germany, Italy, Ireland, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Hungary. Strict rules scupper those hoping to better their chances with the time-honoured tradition of baking their conkers to harden them. All nuts are supplied by the Ashton Conker Club.

Standing on 10 white podiums on the village green, the first pairs of competitors face each other. Stewards offer them a red bag containing the conkers, and they each pick a string. A toss of a coin determines who goes first. Each player has three successive strikes, and the eventual winner goes through to the next round.

A bearded Maid Marion - sheet-metal worker Steve Byrne - with chest hair sprouting out of his green dress, and arms like two country hams, smashes his opponent's conker to smithereens.

The 30-year-old from Gretton, Northamptonshire is up against one of the Bavarians, Josef Koberle. For his part, Koberle, a 40-year-old who owns an ice-cream business, is sporting Lederhosen and a green felt hat. Maid Marion takes a swipe and inspects his conker. It's got a crack in it. He aims again and strikes. His conker explodes. ''Easy come, easy go,'' he mutters, stepping off the podium.

Towards the back of the green, a devil and a monk are arguing about who should stand with the sun in his eyes. A musketeer with stick-on facial hair is jubilant, having seen off a witch.

Suddenly there's a frisson in the crowd. The reigning world champion, who had never played conkers before last year's win, is about to begin his defence. Helmut Kern, in a grey felt hat with conkers around its brim, wins the toss and opts to receive. Anthony Fife, a 37-year-old sales manager from Northampton, takes a swipe at the German's conker, only to see his own burst into the air like a firework.

Kern, who has black, red and yellow stripes across his nose, apologises. His opponent can't believe it: ''I'm as sick as a parrot. I had no sex, stayed off the beer and did all my limbering-up exercises.''

Maggie Twiddy, a school supervisor from Stamford, wins the ladies' final to chants of "Maggie, Maggie, Maggie. Oi! Oi! Oi!"

However, sex equality hasn't touched the sport of conkers - the world champion is determined by the winner of the men's competition. It's between Jody Tracey, a 19-year-old barman from Geddington, Northants, and the mighty Bavarian Josef Koberle.

Tracey strikes first. Koberle's nut is unharmed. It's now the German's turn, and he asks Tracey to lower his conker. He takes his three strikes, but shakes his head at his performance. Tracey, flushed with concentration, has another strike. Koberle anxiously peers at his conker - still no damage. He hangs it out in front of him for another bash. Tracey hits it and it swings round the German's hand. Cracks are starting to appear in both nuts. The younger man aims one almighty swipe at Koberle's nut. It shatters. Tracey sinks to his knees, triumphant.

''This is the first time I've played since I was eight,'' he says, stunned. ''It's quite an achievement. I'm going to put it on my CV.''

''Second place is a good place,'' says Koberle, though he's not sure whether he will return next year.

A euphoric Tracey is led to the King Conker throne, and a crown, made from the nuts, is put on his head. He kisses his trophy. In the crowd he signs the chest of a South African female fan. A young lad stops him and asks him to sign his programme. ''I'll never get to the beer tent at this rate,'' he says.

Meanwhile, a member of the Irish team, James MacWilliam, a 39-year-old agriculturist from Thrapston, heads for the car park. ''Two members through to the second round - total failure,'' he says, shaking his head.