There are a few common hallmarks of childhood in the US-- superheroes, Barbie, Halloween, scouts. For kids in the UK, one of the common denominators of growing up here is conkers.
A conker is both an object and an activity. From the object perspective, a conker is the nut from the horse chestnut tree, two to three of which can be found within a single spiky green husk. The nut is a gorgeous reddish-brown color, and every time I hold one I find myself sorely tempted to eat it. But it's poisonous to humans, and so they predominantly serve as food for squirrels. The ground around the horse chestnut is littered with these things in autumn, and on public land the tree will be surrounded by kids too, collecting as many nut-filled balls as they can.
This is due to the activity aspect of conkers-- the nut is used in a game of the same name, and kids around the UK can be found playing conkers every fall. To play, you make a hole through the nut and thread a string of some type through it (I hear that the tradition is to use a shoelace), tying a knot at one end to keep the conker from slipping off. Then two players line up for battle: one kid lets his conker hang at the end of the string, while the other kid uses his string to propel his conker at the first kid's in an attempt to smash into it, trying to break it. After the second kid takes his shot, the first kid gets a turn. This keeps going until one conker lies is shards on the ground, leaving the other conker's owner the winner. Lots of conkers get broken while playing, which explains why kids collect so many of them.
As with many things British, I thought my neighbor was pulling my leg when he first told me about conkers, especially since I had never noticed the kids around the trees in the fall. His stories of sore knuckles from errant missiles didn't help convince me that his tale was on the level.
As with almost anything, you can find lots of conker-related websites on the net, telling of “world championship” competitions, relaying playing tips, and even sharing ways to cheat (keeping the conker for a season, for example, is a good way to harden the nut up, while other bake them to increase hardness). And of course, lots of “conker porn”-- lush photos of baskets overflowing with the tempting but inedible nuts.
Now, I can remember collecting acorns as a kid, but for no other reason than it seemed cool to have a bag of acorns (my threshold for cool as a child was pretty low). And I can remember having “buckeye fights' with other kids in the woods of Pennsylvania where I spent some of my childhood. But none of these approached the cultural prominence of conkers. In fact, I can think of no equivalent, certainly not at a national level, that compares (although some some regional practices, like the annual “pumpkin chunking'” contests that go on, are close).
And now I get to relive someone else's childhood. With a 5 year old who's growing up here, my life becomes conker-intensive every autumn, and given that a 5 year old is their keeper, fugitive conkers from last October keep showing up in the odd corner of the house all through the year. Maybe they'll be hard enough to serve as a ringer.
Conker image made available under a Creative Commons license by Andrew Dunn: http://www.andrewdunnphoto.com/
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