How the horse chestnut conkered Britain

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The Independent Online
It is sometimes pointed out to the British that they have wonderful things growing wild which they completely ignore. We read about French chefs combing our woods for rare fungi. We see fishermen catching langoustines and spider crabs to be exported to places where they like eating these things better than we do. The Romans introduced the sweet chestnut tree into Britain 2,000 years ago, and we are still not particularly grateful for its fruit.

But there is one thing we harvest and use which the continentals never harvest and use, and that is the fruit of the horse chestnut.

Yes, I mean conkers.

We, and we alone in the world, have devised a use for conkers. Nowhere else in the world do people drill holes in conkers, put string through, tie knots and then proceed to bash each other's conkers to bits.

I was once in France, in the Cognac region, at conker time, and the chestnut trees were disgorging showers of big, brown beautiful conkers, veined and marbled like repro furniture, as big as truffles. (Not those nasty little black things grubbed up unhygienically in the woods by specially trained pigs, but proper big British rum truffles lying in their black paper nests on Thornton's display shelves...)

I gathered a bag full of these shining French conkers, which were being totally ignored by all the schoolchildren of France, and took them back to my children in London. The French customs official who looked in my conker bag at the airport as I embarked for England was taken aback. "Ooh, la, la - on les mange en Angleterre? Quelle cuisine!"

Incroyable! Here was a man who knew all about cooking but had never heard of the game of conkers. And here we British are at the conker season again, that brief period of the year when little boys throw sticks up at chestnut trees, when string disappears from kitchen drawers and when hot debates take place on the morality or otherwise of soaking conkers in vinegar, probably the only time that little boys ever take an interest in the properties of vinegar, except when they are discussing whether it should be sprinkled on the fish as well as the chips.

Some years I see no games of conkers being played at all, but it seems to be back with a bang this year, as although the blackberrying season is over, the lanes of Wiltshire are still full of people a-gathering. Indeed, my son's school was organising a conker competition this week, and I have been watching him practise the game for the first time, which means of course that I have been drawn into it, and I had quite forgotten what a painful business it is. Every time you miss the other conker with your blow, which is what happens most times, your conker whistles past their conker at tremendous speed and ends up cracking you on the knee, or forearm, or worse. Next year I must wear protective clothing. Children, of course, think that the violence is an added attraction.

My son, who is no fool and knows that nature is usually up to some trick, has also asked me what conkers are really for, and I have given him a guarded sex education talk about tree procreation, about the way some trees spread their seed by using the wind, some depend on birds for carrying the seeds to a distance, and some use, well, other methods.

"How far do conkers spread chestnut trees?" he asked, and I had to admit that conkers cannot fly and don't bounce very well, and nobody thinks they are edible and worth picking, so they do not travel very far, but I have been thinking about it since and it has suddenly occurred to me that the horse chestnut is the only tree that is smart enough to propagate itself through a children's game and therefore gets its fruit taken further than any other tree. As obediently as a blackbird taking yew berries, or the wind taking lime tree seeds, little boys take away loads of conkers. Some are used for games of conkers, and cracked, and ruined, but from my own observation most conkers are discarded through boredom and are therefore, with luck, transported several miles to start life again as a new tree.

In my case, don't forget, I once transported a bag of conkers several hundred miles from the Cognac area of France to central London. By any other standard it was an idiotic thing to do. But seen as an example of tree propagation, it is a blinding success story. At the time, of course, I imagined I was just taking home some conkers for the children. Now, I realise, I was merely a helpless victim of evolution, a hapless tool in the hands of nature's blind urge to procreate. It makes a chap feel humble, somehow.