May is always a beautiful month and this May was no exception. A chorus of birds heralded the morning in as the first dews began to evaporate and, now as the sun had begun its long arduous trek across the skies, the fields were alive with the buzzing of insects hurrying from flower to flower.
Maxwell and Skippy stood on a pile of boxes, pressed their noses to the attic window like schoolboys at a sweetshop, looking out to the beckoning fields full of bustling insect activity.
“Let’s ask Cardinal Snowfield if we can go out and catch beetles in the Dell,” Maxwell suggested to his younger brother.
Skippy smiled up at his brother and, within seconds, the two little elves were scampering through the rectory towards the church, with stringed jam-pots in their hands. Soon they reached Cardinal Snowfield’s study at the rear of the church and tapped excitedly upon his door. Immediately, the cardinal recognised their eager patter and called them both in. He was standing at the far end of the study with Bishop Delaney, both of them facing the wall. As Maxwell and Skippy stepped into the room, the two old men both turned to face their young visitors.
“Can we go out this morning and catch beetles?” the two elves asked in unison but, as they asked, their attention was drawn to the object that the Cardinal and Bishop were studying upon the wall.
“What’s that you are looking at?”
Skippy was the first to ask, pointing in curiosity to the wall behind Bishop Delaney’s head.
“Just nostalgia,” replied Bishop Delaney with a smile, reverting his attention back to the wall.
“It’s a picture of our first church,” added Cardinal Snowfield, “where Bishop Delaney and I first met. I bet you never knew the Bishop was a keen painter. He gave me this as a gift many years ago.”
The two elves approached and joined the Cardinal and Bishop in looking at the painting. It was indeed a very fine picture. On the left, the sleek pinnacle of a church steeple stretched gracefully over some colourful shrubbery and to the right, a bold red telephone box and a neat row of small red brick houses stood smartly to attention.
“Why is the tree covered with hundreds of lilac smudges?” enquired Skippy maintaining his outstretched finger towards the picture.
The Cardinal smiled and returned his gaze to the two small elves. Every picture told a story of a thousands words and he was going to delight in sharing this picture’s history with his two young visitors.
“This picture was painted at this time of year, May,” he continued, “and that tree is covered with horse chestnut blossom. It really is a most splendid sight to see! I always did love the all trees around the church and Bishop Delaney knew that and so he painted the church from that angle. He wanted to capture the magnificence of the tree in his painting. I think he did a splendid job!”
Both the two elves looked on but remained quiet. The Cardinal knew that they hadn’t understood something.
“You probably don’t know what a horse chestnut tree is. You’ll know it by its alternative name: The Conker Tree.”
At the mention of the word “conker” both elves widened their eyes open like saucers and they raised their eyebrows in excited anticipation. In their heads, images of shining jewels of brown conkers, nestled in protective hard green spiked cases, came to their minds and they both looked at the picture again in confusion.
“But there are no conkers in the picture!” they both said together. “How can that be a conker tree?”
Bishop Delaney smiles and Cardinal Snowfield winked. The Bishop bent down on one knee to face the two elves. He lowered his voice and glanced around the room, looking for signs of any one else.
“Let me tell you a secret, a tremendous and wonderful secret. Let me share with you something so valuable that any schoolboy would gladly trade his most treasured procession to find out what I shall tell you,” continued Bishop Delaney.
Both Maxwell and Skippy said nothing but you could tell, by the goose pimples standing upright on the back of their necks and the quivering of the tips of their elven ears, that they had given the Bishop their complete and utter attention.
“In October, many a playground fight has arisen from the scarcity of the conker. The conker is such an elusive prize to find and the conker tree hides so adeptly in the browning foliage of the surrounding autumnal trees,” he whispered.
The two elves nodded. They knew of the single conker tree that overhung the school playground and of the many fights that arose each morning playtime, as the older village boys would rush out upon the tarmac surface at the start of break and steal the treasured prizes. It was very rare indeed, last autumn, that either Maxwell or Skippy had even seen a conker, let alone manage to claim it as their own.
The Bishop continued, “If only you knew the secret of the horse chestnut blossom during the preceding spring and how it’s vivid coloured lanterns of pink and lilac would advertise the exact location of every conker tree in the area. Wouldn’t that be something worth knowing?”
Maxwell and Skippy nodded again to the Bishop’s statement and wondrous and incredible thoughts began to fill their minds. If only they knew the location of all the village’s conker trees, they would be the kings of the playground.
Maxwell tugged discretely at Skippy’s arm and began to draw him towards the door of the study.
“Did you two say that you wanted to go hunting beetles?” Cardinal Snowfield asked absently mindedly.
“Oh no, no, no,” Maxwell replied in an excited and thrilled tone. “Skippy and I have other adventures to do!”
With that, the two elves had darted outside the study into the corridor. Cardinal Snowfield and Bishop Delaney both smiled. Together they scratched their balding heads and wondered what these two elves were planning.
Drawing the Map
Maxwell eagerly tugged Skippy’s arm and pulled him out of the church and into Memorial Square, in front of the village school. The two elves looked up in amazement to the skies above the tarmac; Bishop Delaney and Cardinal Snowfield were both right.
There, in front of them, hanging over the school wall, like a gigantic verdant umbrella, was a large and spreading horse chestnut tree. They both recognized it at once as being “the conker tree” from that previous autumn but now it was covered with a mass of beautiful pink lantern-shaped flowers. It is so strange how someone never sees something so obvious until that person looks for it. This was no exception. They both gasped at how they (and all the other playground children) could have failed to notice this amazing symphony of rosey-pink colours each spring. Perhaps it was the lure of the spinning tops, the clatter of marbles against marbles or the shouts and taunts of the playground games but very few children ever thought to raise their heads for a moment and marvel at the world beyond their playtime games. Until that moment, both Maxwell and Skippy had also never seized the opportunity to wonder at the brilliance of horse chestnut blossom in May.
“Isn’t it beautiful! marvelled Skippy in innocent amazement.
“And just imagine,” Maxwell added, “every flower is going to grow into a bunch of conkers this autumn. To think, we never noticed it!”
Skippy smiled and turned to face his elder brother, “I doubt whether any other child has too. It’s a glorious sight and I bet you can see it for miles!”
Maxwell stopped and pondered on Skippy’s words for a few brief moments.
“What did you just say?” he quickly replied, sparks of brilliance were beginning to fire through his head.
“I bet you can see the tree for miles,” Skippy repeated. “Miles and miles and miles.”
With that, Maxwell took hold of his brother’s arm once again and pulled him home to the rectory, on the adjacent side of the memorial square. Skippy knew that his brother had a plan for he could see the flashes passing behind Maxwell’s eyes and the blush on his cheeks was deepening into a reddish hue.
Within a few short minutes the two small elves were up in their attic bedroom, surrounded by the clutter of disorganized childhood laying haphazardly upon the floor. Maxwell picked up a drawing pencil and excitedly passed it to his brother and then he opened a chest from the bottom of the bed, searching inside for a notebook. Within seconds he had found what he wanted.
“You’re good at drawing,” he explained eagerly to his younger brother. “Can you sketch a quick map of the village and beyond?”
Skippy nodded, “Sure, but why?”
Maxwell smiled at the thought of his own brilliance and winked at his younger brother.
“Because today we are going on a top secret mission,” he whispered softly. “We are going to find all the pink-lantern trees in the village and draw them on the map. Then we will keep it safely until October so that only we will know the location of every conker tree for miles around!”
The realization of Maxwell’s plan hit Skippy’s imagination like an express train ploughing through a snowdrift. Ideas were tossed backwards and forwards between the two small elves and their concept began to take shape. Very soon both of them were in a state of frenzied exhilaration as they planned the grand conker survey more carefully. They decided that they would add a key, would grade each tree by the number and size of its flowers and keep the whole plan so very secret that only they would know.
And so, all that weekend, the two elves trekked across the village and the surrounding fields. They walked the path through Tulgey Woods to the castle ruins and back along the Avenue to the jetty on the opposite side of the village. They searched around the church graveyard and beyond; over the bridge that crossed the beck to the far end of the village. By the Sunday evening, they had mapped out the location and grade of every horse chestnut tree in the village and their map began to look very impressive, very impressive indeed.
And when Sunday evening arrived, the two elves rolled it into a cylinder and tied it with a short length of red ribbon that they had saved from the previous Christmas. They melted some candle wax onto the knot and pushed a small penny into the hot wax to leave an impression, for they had no proper sealing wax or seal marker. When all was complete, the rolled-up map was hidden beneath random toys at the bottom of the large chest, laid at the base of Skippy’s bed and there it was to remain for the next few months.
Occasionally, during the next few weeks, Skippy would remove the map and marvel at the beauty of the roll, the vivid flare of the red ribbon or the etched patterns of the penny in the candle wax but he would never unroll it. He knew that it was vital that it should be saved until the autumn and, perhaps, he just wanted to remind himself that it was safe in the chest at the foot of his bed until that time arrived.
A week is a long time in the life of a child. A month might seem like an entirety to a seventy or one hundred and five year old elf but time treks forwards relentlessly, without respite. Day-by-day, week-by-week and month-by-month time trekked forwards. By October, the birds had quietened their morning chorus, the leaves had began to bronze and the nuts upon the trees had began to fatten. Huddled in small groups upon each horse chestnut tree lay a small treasure trove of rich browning hues, waiting for the October winds to prise them free and tumble them onto the grounds below.
And all this time Skippy and Maxwell, as well as every other child in the village, began to dream their dreams of conker-filled treasures and delights. They had childhood dreams of glorious brown treasures raining from the skies and they relished their visions of the delights of the conker search in the lush verdant grasses. However, this October was going to be more special and neither Maxwell nor Skippy could ever imagine the events that were soon to unfold.
October crept in with the stealthful footprints of a burglar at night. The early morning cobwebs welcomed the break of each day with the draping of morning dew, shining like a string of sodden pearls, and the air became fragranced with the damp and musty odor of countless different mushrooms and fungi.
High above in the trees, the horse chestnut trees hid their treasured secret loads, waiting for the autumnal gales to tumble them to the ground.
And then in mid-October, the autumnal magic was released. One-by-one tiny green-spiked cases began to cascade from the branches and break upon the ground, revealing an shiny brown conker treasure within each shell.
“Conkers Bonkers” had begun!
Sadly, Maxwell and Skippy knew that something was amiss when they arrived in the playground that morning and saw the frenzied barging and scrambling upon the tarmac surface. To the side of the playground, there was a crowd of assorted children groping around, retrieving the valued treasures from their protective verdant cases. Maxwell took Skippy’s hand and dashed onto the playground only to be greeted by a barren scene. Within the few brief seconds they had taken to reach the tarmac, the conker treats had been stripped from the ground and now a few hardy boys were throwing small objects into the myriad of branches above their heads, in an attempt to dislodge other conkers from their sanctuary.
Some of the smaller children stood at the side of the playground with empty hands and tears in their eyes. Other small children retreated quickly away, clutching their scant hoard of tiny soiled conkers while some of the larger boys sat on the bench and cast envious eyes at the precious cache the others had amassed. There was no way that one single tree could ever service a whole village (and more) of hundreds of eager children.
Maxwell turned to his smaller brother and whispered, “It’s time to break the seal on the conker map, I think.”
Skippy looked up with eyes of faithful admiration, clenched his brother’s hand firmly and nodded in agreement.
“Let’s get the map now,” he replied. “School doesn’t start for a few more minutes and I’ve got an idea.”
Immediately the two elves double backed to the rectory and returned back to school within a few minutes, with a special treasured roll fastened by a red wax-sealed ribbon. (There was most certainly an advantage in living so close and adjacent to the school buildings!) School was about to start and there was no time to waste.
That morning, at break, Maxwell and Skippy retired to the classroom to plot and plan whilst the other children were actively chasing around in the playground, hunting for further falls of random conkers or participating in makeshift conker tournaments. No one knew what these two elves said nor what they were planning, in fact none of the other children even noticed. The playground was filled with shouts of “stampies!” or quieter periods of intense concentration of conker dibs, tips, strings, strikes and counter-strikes. Inside the classroom, beyond the attention of the playtime children, the two elves continued to plot and plan. Finally, they gathered their belongings, scurried out of the classroom and disappeared down the corridor, to the school office.
What was to happen next took every child in the school by complete surprise. It was three-thirty and home-time had beckoned the children with its lure of further play and recreation outside the school gates. Bishop Delaney took up his usual place at the centre of the corridor and began to wave the brass school bell in the air in long exaggerated arcs, in his usual “home-time” manner. However, what was different that Cardinal Snowfield had taken his place at the school gates, the only entrance and exit that the pupils ever used on their way in and out of the building. In one arm the cardinal carried a mass of A4 sheets of paper, still warm from their recent collection at the school photocopier. As each child left the school, Cardinal Snowfield passed a single sheet to each child and the paper was routinely dropped into their satchel or bag, like any other letter or communication from school.
It was only later, when each child had returned home (or had peeped at the contents of the paper on their way home) that the significance of this act was finally understood by each recipient. Neither Maxwell nor Skippy had written their names upon the map but it was quite clear by analysis that the pictures were drawn by the Skippy and so, by deduction, that Maxwell was involved too.
Suffice to say, the following day, each and every child brought with them a carrier bag or p.e. kit bulging with a treasured brown cargo of conker nuts that they had gathered from the evening before. There were no tears in the playground that morning and no barging and fighting for scant remnants of conkers from the old tree that was once the sole provider for the village children. Each child produced from their pockets a mass of shiny nuts, laced upon a thread of an old shoelace and the playground was filled with an intense scene of competitions and duels involving these cherished nuts.
When Maxwell and Skippy emerged into the playground that morning, the quietness of absorbed concentration of conker duels was broken by a mass chorus of shouts, “Here comes the Conker Kings!”
Within seconds, one child picked up two dried twigs from the ground and bent them into two loose circles, weaving the ends around each other to hold them into place. He placed them upon the heads of Maxwell and Skippy. One-by-one other children picked up fallen leaves and slid them between the folds of the twigs whilst others picked up tiny pieces of tree clutter and did likewise. All the time the playground air was filled with shouts of “Hail the Conker King, Maxwell!” or calls of “Long live, Skippy, the Conker King!”
And when the bell was finally rung for the end of playtime, to return to morning lessons, a crowd of larger boys picked up the two young elves and carried them back into school upon their shoulders to a chorus of shouts from the other children.
Maxwell and Skippy had become, through their efforts and selfless actions, the Conker Kings of St Nicholas School.
What are Conkers?
The seeds of the Horse Chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum) are commonly known as “conkers in Great Britain and Ireland.
The Horse Chestnut tree is a popular ornamental tree found in gardens, parks, churchyards and streets in cities, towns and villages throughout the British Isles. These trees flower abundantly each spring, from April to May, with white or red flower-spikes, known as candles.
The fruits of this tree ripen in September and October and this period is known as the conker season. It is common for the conker to be cherished by young children for their use in playing the traditional game of conkers.
To prepare for the game, the conkers are removed from their green spiky shells (a very easy process to perform) and then a small hole is either forced or drilled through the centre of each seed, using a skewer or hand drill, for a string or shoelace to be threaded. (Drilling is often preferred, as it tends to lead to a neater hole with less stress for the conker.) The threaded cord should be of sufficient length to wrap twice around the hand but still have about twelve inches spare, for the conker to be suspended midair.
To play conkers, you need two players, each with their own prepared conker. A coin may be thrown or a chant recalled to determine who should strike first. The play is awarded to whoever wins the toss or ends the recital first.
“Obly, Obly, Obly! My go first!”
The one who plays first has the first hit at their opponent’s conker. Their opponent holds their conker steady, on a twelve-inch length, with the remaining chord wrapped securely around their hand twice to prevent the conker from falling. If this conker is seen to be swaying slightly, the striker is permitted to steady it before they start their game.
The players then take it in turns to hit their opponent’s conker, having up to three shots each. The striker wraps the string around his/her hand multiple times and holds the conker in his/her other hand. The conker is released and the string is swung down with consider force to effect a strike. Should the strings tangle then the striker is allowed to repeat that shot if he/she calls out “strings” first. If the conkers do not touch, a total of up to three hits are permitted. When the conker is struck, play alternates between the two players.
Should any conker fall to the ground during this duel, spectators are permitted to call, “Stampies!” and crush the offending conker beneath the sole of the shoe.
The game is won when one conker completely destroys the other. In the case of a first win, the winning conker is then called a “one-er” and then may continue in further games. However, on its next victory, it becomes a “two-er” and then a “three-er” and so on. Should a conker destroy a conker that has amassed a score, then that score is added to the conker’s total. Therefore, if a “two-er” destroys another “two-er” it would become a “five-er” (two-er plus two-er plus an additional one for winning.)
Often, more serious veterans of tournaments will resort to baking their conkers or soaking them overnight in vinegar. Some players may argue that this constitutes cheating while others may have their own alternative secret techniques. In addition, the rules of conkering may vary from county to county or even between adjacent schools in the same town. Therefore, it is wise to check on technicalities, when playing with someone with whom you are unfamiliar.
Did you know that the Horse Chestnut tree holds a deep and wonderful secret? No? Well, nor did two small elves, Maxwell and Skippy, until they saw a special picture hanging on the wall of the church study and when Cardinal Snowfield told them of its background. This picture was to provide the inspiration for an incredible adventure that led to the crowning of "The Conker Kings" at the local village school.