What are Conkers?Conkers are seeds from a horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum). They grow inside a spiky case and are not edible.
In the UK, we often call a horse chestnut tree a conker tree so the name refers to the seed, the tree and a traditional children's game (see below).
The horse chestnut tree is not native to Britain but came from the Balkins in the 1570s. The game became popular as the trees were more widely planted. Previously children played with snail shells or hazelnuts.
Conkers Around the World
When to Look for ConkersConker season is during September and October when they begin to fall from the trees.
The prickly casing of the seeds starts off green but turns to brown and opens to reveal the conker/s inside when it's 'ripe'.
(These are not the chestnuts we eat at Christmas; those are from the sweet chestnut tree. Here are some great recipes for those: Brussels Sprouts, Bacon & Chestnut Recipe and Roast Goose and Chestnut Stuffing Recipe. Don't try eating conkers are they will give you a nasty stomach ache.)
Where to Find Conkers in LondonIn central London, the parks are the obvious place to look for conkers on the ground under horse chestnut trees. Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park have rich pickings with horse chestnut trees near the Serpentine Gallery and along the north side, especially near Lancaster Gate.
Outside of central London, I've heard of conker sightings on Clapham Common and Wimbledon Common; in Richmond Park, Broomfield Park, Greenwich Park, Crystal Palace Park, Clissold Park and Finsbury Park, as well as many churchyards.
Choosing the Best Conkers
If you want to check the density to ensure you have a hard conker for playing with, put your conkers in a bowl of water and discard those that float as they are likely to have damage inside. The best conkers for playing with will sink to the bottom as they are denser and therefore harder.
How to Play ConkersMake a hole through the light brown top and out the bottom – you can use a knitting needle, small screwdriver, drill, nail, awl, bradawl, etc. – any long, thin, pointy spike really. The hole needs to be straight and with no notches that could weaken the conker. Next, thread a piece of string (about 25 cm / 10 in) or a shoelace through and tie a knot at the bottom.
Conkers is a two-player game and both need a conker on a string. Both of you wrap some of the string around your hand so you are holding on tightly. One player holds their string out at arms-length with the conker hanging down and the other player (the striker) holds the end of their string and the conker. They then flick their conker to try and hit the dangling conker. If they miss they are allowed two more attempts.
Players take turns and the winner is declared when an opponent's conker is broken.
Scoring in Conkers
There's another rule about gaining the wins of a conker you beat so if your three-er beats another three-er it becomes a seven-er (your 3 + 3 the losing conker had + 1 for the win in this game).
Hardening ConkersObviously, to do well in the game your conker needs to be hard. Traditionally, you're supposed to collect some and save them for a year but there are some cheat options such as soaking them in vinegar, boiling in vinegar, baking them in the oven for half an hour to case harden, or even painting them in clear varnish.
If you get really good at the game you could consider entering the annual World Conker Championship.
Health & Safety
There are stories each year of schools banning conker games but played sensibly, and for fun, no lasting injuries should occur.
More of a problem is the lack of enthusiasm for traditional hobbies when children have access to computer games and so much more these days as this article points out: Have Hopscotch and Marbles Been Killed Off by Video Games?.