They came from France, Latvia… even Venezuela. The finest conker swingers on Earth descended on a pub in Northamptonshire yesterday for the World Conker Championships – but were vanquished by an Englishman from round the corner in Kettering.
Simon Cullum overcame driving rain and contenders from 15 countries to be declared Conker King at the Shuckburgh Arms, in Southwick. “We usually just come here for the real ale, but this year we had to take it a bit more seriously,” he said.
In the final Mr Cullum defeated another local man – Dave “The Pig” Bloomfield – whose concentration was perhaps impaired by the fear that press coverage of his unexpected progress could alert his boss to the sickie he had thrown to enter. The home victory – in the face of hotly tipped challengers from France and Germany – represented a huge boost for the UK conker fraternity, after the last two championships were called off because of bad weather. According to conker lore, the event was first organised by a group of men in the village of Ashton, near Oundle, when bad weather forced them to abandon a fishing trip in 1965.
Since then, the Ashton Conker Club, like the International Olympic Committee, has organised the sport’s premier event. Yesterday, at the 47th championships, men and women were pitted against each other for the first time. Sue Howes, the 2009 women’s champion, who has played in more than 20 competitions, said: “They wouldn’t let women play at all before. When I asked to play they said ‘no’ and I had always wanted to join in. But I have always been determined to play.
“There’s no secret to it, just hit the other conker. But get one dicky conker and you’re out.” After her unexpected exit in the middle rounds, she blamed that “dicky” conker.
When asked for his thoughts about women playing men for the first time, one morning-suited contestant battling through the rain said: “They should be at home making a nourishing stew .” Another gentleman, dressed as the shorts-wearing schoolboy Just William, said: “Now I’m going to be knocked out in the first round by a woman.”
His female companion added that men were “just too violent with their nuts, and keep breaking them”.
At exactly 1.04pm the sun appeared. By 1.05pm it was gone again, shortly afterwards Ray Kellock, from nearby Kettering, the conker world’s multi-world champion equivalent of Roger Federer or Tiger Woods was defeated. Occasionally, in what amounted to high excitement during contests, both competitors’ conkers shattered.
All conkers are assigned by the organisers before each match, to prevent competitors getting an unfair advantage with old schoolboy tricks such as soaking them in vinegar or putting them in the oven. While many, if not all, of the adult matches were conducted with admirable decorum, the children’s competition brought numerous allegations of contestants moving their conkers, which are supposed to be stationary. “The rules are not being enforced,” the father of a competitor from the US complained.
The event’s organiser, St John Burkett demonstrated the “Southwick Swipe” to the crowd of around 200. He performed the three main shots: the straight-down smash, the side swipe and the angled 45-degree attack designed to chip another horse chestnut. “It’s easy,” the former champion and expert competitor said. He later took on The Independent in an “exhibition” match for the crowd’s benefit between rounds. Despite many lusty blows, this newspaper was honourably defeated.