Going bonkers for conkers

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AUTUMN is starting to show its colours now. The first plant to change is the Virginia creeper, and it’s one of the most dramatic with leaves ranging from yellowish-pink to brilliant, deep red.

Large trees are still green, although birches, willows and hazels are showing patches of yellow.

Horse chestnut leaves are edged with brown and gold, while the ground under the trees is littered with the remnants of conker shells, their contents spirited away.

There’s nothing they don’t know about conkers at Ashton, near Peterborough.

The village has a fine avenue of horse chestnut trees, which is handy for collecting the thousands of conkers needed to stage the World Conker Championships.

In 2010 they raised over £21,000 for charity, and they’re hoping to top that this Sunday, the 9th.

Although the game is familiar, its origin is unclear. The name comes from an old pastime called “conquerors”, in which two snail shells were squeezed together to see which cracked first.

In the 17th century, hazel nuts were strung and knocked together, and in the 1850s walnuts were used in similar fashion.

So where were conkers all this time? The horse chestnut isn’t a native tree: it was brought here from Turkey in the late 16th century to be grown as a specimen on private estates.

There it remained until Victorian times, when the horse chestnut began to spread to public parks and village greens.

“Every Boy’s Book”, published in 1856, contains the first reference to conkers as we know it.

Going nutting

October is the month for nuts. People used to make the most of the harvest, especially of hazel nuts.

They were stored in their shells to be eaten during the winter, or dried, ground and mixed with flour, or sold for use by cloth dyers.

Hazel nut gathering was done by groups of villagers, often women, and their lively expeditions inspired a number of songs about the perils of nutting.

Young women were warned that on Sundays and saints’ days the Devil lurked in the woods.

In the guise of a fine-looking gentleman, he would offer to bend down the higher branches where the best nuts grew.

This tale was obviously no deterrent, as it was commonly said that after a good nut harvest a good crop of babies was sure to follow.

Hazel nuts were used to forecast the winter months. Thick shells meant hard times, or if they were thin the winter would be a mild one.

A heavy crop of hawthorn berries, or acorns, was also said to signify a hard winter. The earlier they appeared, the sooner the chill would arrive.

This autumn has brought acorns aplenty in the New Forest.

The commoners there have an ancient right, called pannage, to turn their pigs out to forage for fallen acorns.

Because this year’s crop is so exceptional hundreds of pigs went into the forest last month, earlier than usual.

Where there are oak trees, you’re likely to find the exotic-looking jay. This bird not only eats acorns, it also hides them for later in the winter.

And as a member of the clever crow family, it also remembers where it has put them.

Jays are shy birds of woodland and parks, so a glimpse of white rump among the branches is normally all that is seen.

But in autumn the urge to find and cache food makes them bolder. You might spot a jay hiding its treasure in a pile of fallen leaves, or a hole among the roots of an old tree.

It’s a beautiful bird with a pinkish body, speckled cap, and bold black-and-white wings that bear a patch of electric blue.

Indian summer?

While September surprised us with an extraordinary heatwave, it was too early to be called an Indian summer.

The term comes from the early colonists in North America, who noted how a spell of fine weather in October allowed Native Americans to collect extra food before winter set in.

So there’s time yet for an Indian summer. It often arrives around St Luke’s Day on the 18th, and used to be called St Luke’s little summer.