“Conker Memories”

I got up early this morning and discovered a beautiful sun-shining autumn day; perfect for a walk in the Northamptonshire countryside. A no excuses to stay in bed day.

So walking shoes – dusted off. A lightweight jacket in case of showers; check pockets filled with hankie and inhaler; apples for me and any horses I might encounter; notepad and pen to capture any passing thoughts – otherwise long forgotten by the time I get back home; and my trusty ordnance survey map to keep me on the public footpaths. Finally – the these days indispensable mobile phone to call in the rescue helicopter if I get lost.

As I am about to step out of the door my wife throws me a challenge – “if you see any conkers bring some back to put around the house, an old wives tale says they scare away spiders and it worked last year”.

It doesn’t take long to drive away from the hustle and bustle of modern life. TV and traffic noise quickly banished. I return to a rural idyll I stumbled across a few weeks ago. A country estate four miles from the nearest major road. The main house once a hall of Lordship grandeur – no civil war revolutions here – brought down to earth by the grim reaper and the taxman’s death duties. It’s now a luxury country house hotel exclusively available to guests with only a weekend-long interest in rural life. No oak trees planted by these passers by.

Still I am left to enjoy the peace and quiet and the legacy of trees planted two centuries ago – Oak, Ash, Beech, Sycamore, Walnut and Chestnut all proudly standing a hundred feet high still dressed up in their summer coats of leaves not yet yielding to autumn.

Farmers with their tractors and ploughs dance around their base but these statuesque specimens are too noble to be brought down by the ravages of more economic farming.

These are the trees of my youth. I grew up in Abergavenny with my bedroom window looking over Bailey Park, and not-so-distant views of the Brecon Beacons. Right outside the house was a giant Horse Chestnut tree, which in spring was decorated, like a belated Christmas tree, with white flower candles. Quietly throughout my childhood summers, the flowers turned to spiky fruit high up in the unreachable branches of the tree. Then the first windy day of September began a flurry of sporting activity. Who could find the biggest and best conkers? Initially fallen from the most ripe fruit. Then later, more reluctant and harder conkers had to be encouraged by an army of little boys throwing sticks into the trees; the occasional reprimand from parents when sticks fell back on cars or pedestrians. Even worse the park-keeper complete with blue uniform and whistle would chase us away and threaten us with being “reported” – to who I don’t know. By strange coincidence, given my mission today, we called him spider – though never to his face.

“Spider” went off duty at six o’clock and locked the park gates for the night. Leave it half an hour and we could climb over the railings and return to our task of filling our pockets with conkers.

The following day in the school playground your best conkers were already laced up and ready to go (no shoe laces these days!) Your spare conkers could be swapped for the cards out of packets of tea. Some of the more cunning and more experienced boys may have soaked their conkers in vinegar for days or baked them in the oven, but this was “illegal” and so nobody talked about it. These days it would probably be grounds for a no-win, no-fee court case for fraud.

The playground jousting lasted for a few weeks. Some peoples’ hopes were dashed in the very first game with bits of broken conker flying everywhere. A field day for health and safety officers who, no doubt, would ban this dangerous past-time and probably prosecute teachers and parents. Meanwhile we were too innocent to know the danger we were in so we just had fun. If you won your conker became a twoer, a threer, a fourer, a fiver and so on. If you got to ten you achieved real status in the whole school. By the end of the fortnight if you were the last man standing you became the school champion until next year. A position much more important in the playground than academic achievement.

So returning from my walk pockets full of conkers had brought back many happy memories and “old wives tales” being true will frighten spiders away for another year.

 

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4 Responses to “Conker Memories”

  1. Weston says:

    Vinegar illegal?! It was essential, as was a “hardening up” period of at least a week in the airing cupboard after the soaking. Your choice of conker was revealing too – did you go for the whopping great big shiny one that looked like it mean’t business, or the small shrivelled up hard-case that everyone laughed at until it was a 49er! Who said conkers was just a game!

  2. David Evans , Cardiff says:

    Those of you encouraged by this blog to take up these childhood past times again, might like to know that the World Conker Championships are due to take place this year in Belgium. However you better be quick because apparently a plague of caterpillars are eating all the horse chestnut trees.

    What’s the world coming to?

  3. David W Freeman says:

    I have conker memories kicking autumn leaves high in the air with my shoes as a kid and with my children when they where young. Fond memeories of sleddging with my sisters and school friends on rawdon littlemorr the billing and Rawdon golf course. I sledged for 7 until 15 great fun in the winter.

    I

  4. david freeman says:

    CURSIOUR & CURSIOUR said the White Rabbit ‘What a co-incidence.’
    A Four Act Drama by Maureen Clench.
    Act 1
    Scene 1 The Maple Cafe Lovat Fields.
    Collected in a corner of the Maple Cafe are the exponents and experts in ladies conversation. The day usually starts when one of the lovely reception staff at Lovat Fields ask any stranger or ‘Friend’ of the Village to sign in at the reception desk: Then they ask who or what would you like to see? You are then directed the correct person, place or in Maureen case the Cafe so the conversation can be completed in convivial surroundings.
    The tales of yore then begin, who married who, who put sugar in who’s tea, and of course
    ‘Have you heard?’
    Scene II The conversationalists are sometimes joined by men, by invitation only!
    Maureen in full swing, and I happen to mention that Molly and I would like to visit the City of Bath. Well nothing about Bath, just a passing comment it is a lovely City, busy plenty of shops, and very hilly. If you stay, be advised to stop at or near a city Park and Ride terminus. Nothing so far! But a day later I reveal Molly and I have been on the web and like the look of the Blythwaite Hotel near the Landswdown Park and Ride.
    Well did we know that the Reverend Blythwaite lived at Dyrham Park, and that I (Maureen) knew the remnants’ of the Blythwaite family: had camped as a girl guide in Dyrham Park: Maureen belonged to the nearby village of Wick Guide Company (The 1st. Wick Company): And that in 1949 Maureen with the 1st. Wick Guides attended a week’s camp in the Netherlands near Rotterdam-This was the only city/town visited which had visible bomb damage.

    Act 2
    Scene I
    Molly and I do visit Bath; we do utilize the Landsdown Park and Ride, and thoroughly enjoy our stay in Bath, visiting the Roman Baths, the old city centre abbey and shops, and the American Museum to see the quilting exhibition. It was a wonderful time.
    On our way to Bath from Milton Keynes, we went via some beautiful Cotswold villages and stopped for a break at Stowe on the Wolds.
    Scene II
    On our way into Bath we had arranged to visit the National Trust property Dyrham Park. We arrived at 12.30, paid our dues and went down to the house. It was an interesting barn of a place with a lovely deer park: Full of artefacts’ collected by the Blythwaite family, and who now live in an estate cottage, remote from the main house. We diligently paraded around the house OO’s and Ahh’s and the occasional questions to the appropriate adult.
    Finally we arrived in the cellars and servants quarters, and the last room in the house when we came upon a Guiding exhibition in the process of being set up.
    Mannequins with the Brownies, Guide, and Guider uniforms, standards of the Guide movement, and a company flag to the 1st. Wick Guide troop! And again memorabilia in two long glass exhibition cases. We looked we studied, we noted. In one of the glass cases was a handwritten log book dated 1949 about a guide camp in Holland. I was mesmerised? Had this anything to do with Maureen.
    Scene III
    We retired to our hotel, no information was available about the guiding exhibition, but as the ‘white rabbit said ‘Curiouser and curiouser, our noses where twitching. We text Maureen with the barest of details and asked: Is this anything to do with you.
    Act 3 Lovat Fields
    Scene I
    Maureen admitted that she had literary talent, and with a friend/guider they had both drafted an individual log book of their camp holiday in Holland in 1949. Was the book mine it had a black cloth cover? We could not answer.
    The cat by now was purring and the curiosity had got the better of Maureen, On the following Monday after our (Molly and David’s return) Maureen rang Dyrham Park to find out the truth. We put Maureen on a 3 line whip and asked if she was invited to see the artefact, could we convey her to Dyrham Park. The deed was done the stage was set.
    Maureen contacted her guider companion of whom she was the mentor Lynne Elliott at the 1st. Wick Guide Company, and discussed how and when the artefacts’ at Dyrham should be seen.
    The house manager at Dyrham indicated that the guide Exhibition would finish at the end of the season 31 October 2010.
    Maureen set the date for Friday the 16th. October 2010 at 14.00 hours.
    Wonderful said the ‘White Rabbit’.
    Act 4 The dirty deed
    Scene 1
    Maureen collected her longest family friend Megan, and Molly and I provided the baggage and transport. We set off to prove the artefacts’ in Dryham Park where Maureen’s.
    We left at 08.30 precisely and stopped on route in the village of Burford, after having gone via Buckingham and Chipping Norton for light refreshment. We then progressed, Bibury, Cirencester, Tetbury to Dyrham near Bath and the village of WICK.
    We stopped at THE Crown for lunch, and met Maureen’s brother Mick and his wife Jacqueline, plus Lynne the guider. The surroundings were intermit and the conversation jovial. We established that Maureen was indeed a Miss Clench once in her life time, and that she had been a character in the villages surrounding WICK. After a wonderful lunch we proceeded without Mick and Jacqueline to Dyrham Park for 14.00 precisely.
    Scene II
    Maureen made herself known and Megan, Lynne, Molly and I we all caught the bus down to the house reception point. The acting House Manager was wonderful, and we were guided through the servant door into the last room of the house.
    The Exhibition had by now been properly established, and Maureen viewed the exhibition, then the glass show cases (2off). The first had some very interesting modern items of guiding, but not of Maureen’s era, or as old as Maureen.
    The second glass case was scrutinised, and suddenly after a few OO’s and Ahh’s Eureka that is my log book, that is what I have come to see! Would you like me to take it out of the case Maureen was asked? The reply yes please.
    While the log book was being retrieved there was a lady from the modern day area guide movement who expressed surprise at the log book and Maureen’s age that two such artefacts’ could be brought together. The talk then went over my head as conversations of Guiding in Modern and latter day South Gloustershire were discussed.
    Scene III
    The acting house manager Linda Sharpe asked Maureen if she, the log book and her party would like to retreat to her office to review the artefacts’ and indeed look at some more concerning the South Gloustershire Guide Movement and the 1st. Wick Company. The answer was yes please.
    We retired to the office and in the room was Maureen, Lynne, Megan, Molly, Linda, me and Eilidh Auckland assistant Guide Leader of the modern day Dyrham District Guides.
    The memories flowed, Lynne was banished with Ruth from the 1st Wick Company, but both were admitted back so the records show for the Company honour. Both Ruth and Lynne have yet to discuss the point-none of them remember and Maureen as Guide Captain has not a clue as to what is bad behaviour it could have been- It must have been a misdemeanour.
    The guide captain, the guide, and today’s guider, it got terribly warm in the room, with Megan, Molly, Linda, and I watching on as the campfire was lit, the old guide note books, prayer books, accounts, and its song books all came to life on this autumnal afternoon. The friendships camaraderie and general bon homnie flowed like a rich wine. I was personally reminded of my youth and my camp fire days as a scout.
    There were squeals, laughter and good humour as Maureen travel all those years in a few hours at Dyrham amongst friends. Eilidh and her 18 month old son brought the party up to date in a time sequence, so to speak, and after about three hours; Maureen was asked if she would give more information to the local Wick Village and Dyrham Park elders of her memories of the families and friends she knew as a younger person of that area. Maureen agreed only too happily.
    The final accolade to Maureen was information given by Eilidh from the local guide movement and Linda on behalf of the National Trust at Dyrham Park, was that all the guide memorabilia: Including Maureen’s log book of the Guide Camp in Holland, was that they were to be archived for public record and put on the web for the future generations of South Gloustershire Guides, and any member of the public, so interested. Linda and Eilidh then requested Maureen sign her log book with the current date, and in her own hand. Maureen the ’The Old Trout who she is’ was tickled pink, and duly took the ceremonial pen, and scribed her name: Maureen O’ Neill nee Clench and the date Friday 16 October 2010.
    Honour was seen to be served and honour done, we retired to the Dyrham Park Cafe for a refreshing cup of tea or coffee.
    The Final Act. Act 4 The white rabbit looked at his watch, and Cinderella with Jeremy Cricket thought it is time to go home!
    The homeward journey, we made good time travelling through South Gloustershire, The Cotswolds, and finally North Oxfordshire and then Buckingham and home, to Lovat Fields, and we all disembarked Megan said her farewells, and Molly and David said good night to Maureen.
    Maureen then said it is London Night at Lovat Fields, I think I may go and meet more of my friends such as Val and Denis, and many others. Not bad for a girl who was brought up in Bath and Bristol, but born in Plumstead, London. In one short day Maureen had seen the racing colours of her gums give life to a story only she could tell as a past English mistress, and raconteur.
    ‘What a coincidence’ said the white rabbit.
    The White Rabbit asked if there was any more to this story and I can hear Bill reply ’That’s my Maureen’.
    The End

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