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Last week I was on a secret mission. Deep in the woods outside Inverurie, there are some horse chestnut trees which always have a good supply of conkers. Under the pretence of taking my dog for a walk I took a bag and set off during the middle of the day to add to my collection.

As I approached the trees, my apprehension grew. Year after year, I suffered disappointment as a child, usually being the last to get to the conker trees and having the tail-end pickings. At first glance when I arrived I thought my childhood nighmares were going to be relived.

Conkers hide themselves remarkably well. In their cases, tucked away in the leaf litter, was a huge natural treasure trove. Oh wow! But there’s a lot more you can do with them aside from gloat over their shiny brown skins. Oh yes! Relief spread over me as I realized my covert secret squirrel operation to avoid the hordes of children, was entirely unnecessary. The only mild disappointment was the over all size of the conkers. If there has been a drought in the early or mid-part of the spring or summer, or too much rain in the summer and not enough sun, then the conkers don’t grow as well.

These days, few children collect conkers. Mad myths about not being able to use them in schools exist and generally they are consigned to the Age of Reminiscence along with toilet tubes and egg cartons. However times are changing and from the deep, dark past I have unearthed some great activities and advice.

Firstly, don’t bother trying to knock conkers out of the tree. They are the seeds of the horse chestnut and are still ripening. The result will be poor quality conkers. If the tree is beside a road or pavement, don’t shell your conkers from their cases and leave the shells on the ground. They do make a mess and elderly or less physically able people can slip on them. Take them home and put them on the compost heap or add them to woodland litter elsewhere. Collect conkers in a sustainable way and leave plenty for wildlife such as squirrels and to reseed.

Ignore the advice about soaking conkers in vinegar and baking them in the oven. These are more myths. Vinegar does nothing except spoil and corrode the surface. It’s better to let the conkers dry naturally. Drill a hole for strings straight away. Practise on a few unimportant conkers first until you get the hang of making holes, and then make your specimens. According to tradition, the figure of eight knot is the best one to use as it won’t come undone with repeated competitions.

Next, put away the best conkers, with pre-drilled holes for next year. The conkers harden with age. These are your secret weapon next year. The string should be slightly shorter than the length of your forearm. Do not try and cheat by varnishing your conker or filling the insides with superglue, polyfilla or other hardeners. You will be discovered. For playing conkers, there are official rules which are used in the World Conker Championships.

Finally for more child friendly information about conkers, visit the Woodlands Junior School website.

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Comment by Juliet Robertson on October 30, 2009 at 11:28am
Thanks for the comments and links Eric

I think it's interesting to see how many traditional outdoor activities are endemic to many countries. Buckeyes or conkers have so much play value.
Comment by Eric Gyllenhaal on October 30, 2009 at 7:49am
Great post! Here in the USA many of us collected Buckeyes as kids and used them in similar ways. (Buckeyes are a lot like Horse Chestnuts, but native to US.) Now that my boys are 12 and 14 and more interested in birds than nuts, I'm the only member of our family who seeks them out each year. My main competition for the crop is tree squirrels.
Here's my most recent blog post on the topic: http://neighborhoodnature.wordpress.com/2009/08/20/our-husked-bucke...
But of course I couldn't wait for them to ripen naturally, so here's my first post on Buckeyes: http://neighborhoodnature.wordpress.com/2009/07/20/buckeyes-are-rip...
Again, thanks for the post! I'll link from my site.
Eric

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