Anyone for conkers?
Several weeks ago as I passed by one of the district’s horse chestnut trees, I was surprised to see the large quantity of new shiny “conkers” lying untouched and scattered on the ground. It may be a good year for the conker, or, maybe I had just been lucky and had arrived at the base of “the spreading chestnut tree” prior to the arrival of the local school children. Perhaps their minds are more focused on the current electronic gadget era, once popular school-yard games that included “marlies,” hopscotch and conkers, have finally been confined to the memories of the older generation and the annals of history.
I once read that the horse chestnut is indigenous to the Balkan areas, and it was first rooted in our soils in the seventeenth century. The produce of the horse chestnut, although virtually useless as animal fodder, has been put to other uses. Chestnuts have been used in the treatment of varicose veins, ringworm and other ailments over the years. During the 1st world war it was widely reported that the chestnut was used as a source of acetone. Herbalists and those who practise natural healing use the chestnut bud to treat those who tend not to learn by experience and repeatedly make the same mistakes over again.
A Victorian publication, within my possession, titled “The Enquirer’s Oracle” contains a section titled “The language of flowers.” It claims to record the “moral property or sentiment ascribed to the respective items.” The chestnut has been listed as representing luxury and the chestnut tree represents an act of justice. Leaving horse chestnuts about the home was supposed to deter house spiders.
In some older publication I read that the wood from the chestnut tree was sometimes considered of little use. In March 1918, however, the local firm of WJ & C Law, who had a sawmill and timber yard at Bachelor’s Walk in Lisburn were anxious to purchase “large or small quantities of timber - standing or felled.” Chestnut, sally and sycamore were amongst those listed.
In times gone by, local children in the district congregated around the many chestnut trees, armed with sticks and other implements in an attempt to prematurely down the husks that contained the much sought after golden brown seeds. This would sometimes be to of much annoyance to the householders and landowners in the more urban areas of the district. Some of the sticks and stones would frequently miss their mark and prove be too close for comfort in respect of property situated nearby.
On this occasion I had found it irresistible to pass-by the newly discovered hoard of fallen conkers and I filled my trouser pockets to full capacity. As I left, pockets bulging, I remembered a word from my childhood used by my father at this time of the year. “Clincher.” He used that word when there was an entangling of strings or shoelaces, on which the conkers were suspended, as we played our annual bout.
“Keep still,” he would snap, prior to landing an attack upon my well-strung cheeser. Inevitably I would flinch, anticipating the conker collision, much to his displeasure. He had acquired the skills from his school-days and he could accurately judge the distance between the competing conkers, having the exact amount of excess string wound around his clenched hand. To perfect the shot, the taut string passed over the tip of his thumb, providing him with the perfect springboard and launch pad for another successful strike.
This was the stage when the various methodologies relating to the hardening of the chestnut, prior to any game, would be put to the test. Every nook and cranny about the hearth or fireplace would be utilised for the hardening process in advance of a game. One alternative method was to soak the chestnut in vinegar. An array of pointed implements, including nails, needles and small pointed instruments would be used to make a well centered hole, avoiding any injury to the hand by placing the chestnut on the doorstep, tiled floor or similar surface. A good thick knot secured the chestnut and prepared the way for battle, normally held at break time in the local school-yard. The object would be to smash as many of the opponents chestnuts as possible. This would elevate the winner’s chestnut to a “one-er” and on a successful second win to a “two-er”.
Over the past number of years, health and safety has taken its toll on this once popular pastime . It was reported that a number of schools in England had banned the game. Of course a strung chestnut could be used as an offensive weapon, but some school authorities have been concerned the chestnut may well cause problems to those pupils who were susceptible to nut allergies. I remember reading a number of years ago that some schools had issued safety goggles to those pupils who engaged in the sport during break times.
Despite the setbacks, the game continues amongst a dedicated number of individuals. This year marks the 9th annual Irish Conker Championships in County Kilkenny . Indeed, in the Village Green, Ashton, Northamptonshire, a World Conker Championship has been held since 1965. It has been reported that there are over 300 participants due to take part in this year’s competition, with the proceeds going to charity. There are published sets of rules for each event and the organisers provide the chestnuts, preventing any form of cheating.
I was interested to hear one of my old friends comment recently that he would now find it difficult to direct me to any local chestnut trees. He recalled that how, almost eighty years ago, he and other teenagers would cross the fields to the local chestnut trees and collect an abundance of chestnuts. I have recorded many similar stories. Local school children always knew the location of the nearest chestnut tree to their school. The children who attended the old Ballymacash School, situated between the corner of the Ballymacash Road and the Nettlehill Road, did not have far to travel. Mr. Mair’s farm across the road from the school was a favourite spot for collecting the conkers. So too was the chestnut tree once situated in the vicinity of the home of the local bread server, Billy Richardson. But like so many other places , times have changed. The old school and Sunday-school at Ballymacash have been converted to retail and food outlets. What was once part of Mair’s farm is now a housing estate. There are plans afoot to turn Billy Richardson’s old residence into an apartment development, and the chestnut tree close to the bottom of his garden was removed many years ago.
Earlier this year, we read that a disease appeared to be spreading across the country, and was affecting the chestnut tree, indeed threatening their continued existence. Locally, I fear development has surpassed any threat of disease to the local chestnut trees. Have a look at any local map now. The street names serve as the only reminders to a piece of our past. Have a look at any local map nowadays - Chestnut Villa, Dunmurry, Chestnut Glen, Glenavy, Chestnut Hall, Megaberry, Chestnut Hill, Derriaghy and Chestnut Lodge, Drumbo to name but a few.
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