If you've never heard of conkers before, you're in good company. Until recently I had no idea what a "conker" was and had certainly never played it! Conkers are another term for chestnuts, or rather a local, traditional children's game played with chestnuts. It's a pretty simple game between two people. Each person has a conker threaded on a string (or more commonly an old shoelace, my shoelaces were sacrificed this year) and they take turns whacking one another's conker. The first conker to break loses. But the real strategy in conkers comes earlier, in the collection of the best chestnuts and then the special preparation you take to make your chosen conker the hardest and toughest to beat. Some trees will produce bigger nuts and you collect a lot before you make your final selection of which looks the biggest and best. Then, there are different techniques to toughen your conker--Thomas told me when he was younger he would hoard some for a whole year in a hot press waiting until the next autumn to make their fighting debut, while other people would soak their conkers in vinegar in attempt to make them harder. It's an old game that dates back to the 1800s and still played today, although some schools have banned it (and you can imagine why it might not be wise to have children swinging hardened conkers on strings in each other's faces!).
This is how "conkers" or chestnuts look on the branch; they have an outer protective prickly shell you break off to get to the nut in the center. An old wives tale says having fresh chestnuts in your house will keep spiders away.
I had a lot of fun collecting conkers and learning to play the game a bit this autumn. I'm quite a newbie so it's hard for me to even swing my conker correctly to hit my opponent's! But it's fun to learn a little bit about Thomas's childhood and highly entertaining to watch him play against his father (they're tied with equal wins and losses right now)! I might have to bring this game back to America and teach my family to play on our next visit.