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.