Backstory: Everyone's going conkers

Will a traditional, 'nutty' rite of British childhood fall to modern 'antirisk' culture?

Seamus Lynch, 10, leans back and hurls a sturdy half-branch into a heavily pregnant horse-chestnut tree. It slices through leaves and twigs, sending prickly green cases raining to the ground.

"Ow!" squeaks his younger sister Shauna, when one of the pricks penetrates her protective gloves, stabbing her forefinger. But she forges on, scooping the bounty into a tattered grocery bag.

Later, we split open the husks and behold the round, gleaming treasures inside: mahogany-brown chestnuts, or "conkers," as we call them in Britain, of all shapes and sizes. Seamus is looking for the shiniest, the toughest, the one most likely to help him win the war of the playground and respect among his classmates.

"Here!" he shouts, plucking up a big, bulbous chestnut . "This is my conker."

Beneath the chestnut boughs, in this gray, gravelly north London alleyway, normally the haunt of cats or clapped-out old cars, Seamus and Shauna perform a rite of British childhood. Like countless kids around the country each fall, they're conker-hunting – looking for "weapons" with which to do battle in the game of the same name: conkers.

This is the same spot my five brothers and I scored conkers 20 years ago. A lot has changed since then, though. The tree looks more haggard, as if finally distressed by the annualtroops of children stealing its fruit for war.

But perhaps more ominous, today the cherished childhood game of conkers, itself, is under threat. From the outright ban of the rough-and-tough game to chopping down the ancient chestnut trees that tempt conkers players, the health-and-safety culture has sparked impassioned debate.

Conkers proponents suggest that to deny children of this tradition is to rob them of the independence, grit, and sportsmanship instilled in generations of British boys and girls before them.

Opponents – largely single actors on town and school council stages and not an organized force – do not share one overriding concern, but rather attach various concerns for kids to the game. And they have a lower tolerance for liability and bodily injury than previous generations did.

***

Conkers has been around for 200 years. It evolved from a game called "conquerors," originally played with snail shells dangling from string. By the 20th century, the horse-chestnut version had come into play. Today, the game remains as common among British school kids as marbles once was among their American counterparts. In the autumn horse-chestnut season, British playgrounds ring with the sound of conkers clacking and being stamped.

It's a fight to the death – of the conker. Having picked your conker, you bore a hole in it with a skewer or screwdriver, thread a shoelace through, then tie a knot at the end to hold the nut in place. Then battle begins. It's a clash between two players. Each takes a turn bashing the other's conker with his own. One player lets his conker dangle; the other wraps his own shoelace around one hand, pulls his conker back with the other hand, and then – bam! – takes fire at his opponent's conker. This continues until one conker has been smashed.

If your conker is knocked from its shoelace your opponent can yell "Stampsy!" – an invitation to spectators to stamp your conker into the earth. If shoelaces become entangled, someone usually screams "Tugsy!"– giving rise to a ruthless tug of war to see who can yank his opponent's conker from its lace.

Victory can be sweet, earning a kid respect in the schoolyard. A conker that beats another is christened a "one-er"; if it beats two it's a "two-er," and so on. Best of all, your conker takes on the score and credentials of all those it beats. I vividly recall the kudos that came my way when, at age 8, my "one-er," a pretty pasty, feeble conker, yanked from this same alleyway tree in 1982, somehow beat a "ten-er." Overnight I had an "eleven-er," and it was the talk of the school.

Seamus hopes the tree today has yielded another surprise star chestnut that will make him King of Conkers. That is, "if the teachers let us play," he says, buffing his conker with his sleeve.

His school is the latest in Britain said to be on the verge of banning the game, in what is starting to look like a national purge of conkers.

While everyone knows someone hurt in a conkers game – much as in any childhood game – there are no official statistics on conker hunting or playing accidents. Yet because it involves climbing trees, using sharp implements, and taking part in stormy playground battles, it has earned the ire of some town and school officials.

This fall, Newcastle City Council in northeast England took the extraordinary step of sending cranes to strip bare horse-chestnut trees to prevent climbing for conkers.

"By taking the conkers off the problem trees it reduces the chances of kids getting hurt," reasons Steven Charlton of Newcastle's environmental services.

Last year a school in Cumbria banned conkers on the grounds that chestnuts are a nut-allergy threat. A school in Carlisle insisted that children wear goggles while playing. In 2004, South Tyneside Borough Council chopped down chestnut trees to prevent conker hunts. And I recently discovered that my old elementary school banned the game because kids were using the metal fence spikes to drill holes in conkers.

One survey of playground life in schools in central England suggests that individual teachers, afraid of lawsuits, are unilaterally banning conkers. The researcher, Sarah Thomson of Keele University, concluded: "The lunch break is now in danger of becoming a sterile, joyless time as schools overreact to an increasingly litigious society."

***

"[Conkers opposition] has reached absurd levels," charges Conn Iggulden, author of "The Dangerous Book for Boys," which has hit bestseller lists here with praise for challenging the "antirisk culture" that some say is stifling kids. The book advises how to win at conkers, soccer, and fishing, as well as how to skip rocks across water and experiment on insects.

"If we wrap our children in cotton wool all the time, then they will never develop the skills and independence required to become fully adult. I say let them climb trees, and let them play conkers," Mr. Iggulden tells me during a break in his duties as a judge at the World Conker Championships which were held last month in Ashton, a hamlet in Northamptonshire, England.

The event draws competitors for the crowns of King and Queen of Conkers from as far as the US and Latvia.

"We are bonkers about conkers. And anyone who tries to take this sport away from us will have a fight on his hands," says David Jakins, a competitor who has played conkers for perhaps more than 60 years.

A newcomer to the sport, James Monroe Miller, cheers on the American team: "It would be a shame if conkers fell victim to today's politics of risk aversion. It is such a quintessentially English sport." He pauses. "Having said that," adds the Baltimore native working for the US military in Britain,"I want the American team to whup you Brits today."

***

Seamus and Shauna return home, their bag bulging with the spoils of our conker hunt. They didn't get injured(except for a minor scrape on Shauna's finger), but they do look refreshed, weather-hardened, ready for battle tomorrow.

And that surely beats staying indoors and watching TV.

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