When I was a kid in elementary school, the start of Fall meant only one thing – it was time for chestnut fights.
For the uninitiated, chestnut fights (or conkers, as some people call them), are vicious one-on-one competitions involving chestnuts on strings. Competitors take turns trying to break the opponent’s chestnut. While the official game requires the chestnut being struck to hang freely in the air while the other person whacks it with their chestnut, our regional variation called for the chestnut to lie on a cushion of sand.
It is difficult to express the passion my friends and I had for this game. Every recess and lunch hour in late September and October was spent playing chestnuts. When we weren’t at school, my brother and I would set off in search of chestnuts, and then painstakingly put holes through them with a large nail before threading them on an old shoe lace. Once strung with about a dozen chestnuts, we were ready to do battle.
We knew the location of every chestnut tree in Hespeler – the one down by the tennis courts, the one around the corner from the church, the one by Sunnyview dairy bar. We’d usually meet up with a few kids, and we’d take turns throwing sticks up into the tree to knock the chestnuts down. Sometimes guys would show up with huge horse chestnuts, and they would refuse to reveal the tree’s location in order to protect their secret source.
The schoolyard was rife with tales about how to make the strongest chestnut. Some kids soaked them in vinegar to make them bouncy. Others took the opposite approach, baking them in the oven to make them hard. I used to wrap them in socks and then place them in a box in the dark recesses of my closet. After a few months they’d shrivel up and become indestructible little nuggets. Some called it cheating – I called it science.
I’ve spoken to a lot of people over the years, and I’m surprised how few of them have encountered the game. I haven’t seen anyone at A & K’s school playing chestnuts, so perhaps the game’s appeal was limited to our little pocket in Cambridge.
Last night after school, I took A & K to a chestnut tree in our neigbourhood. Just like I had 30 years ago, I stepped on the spiky husks to crack them open and plucked out the fresh nuts. The boys eagerly filled their pockets, and later this week we’ll put holes in them and string ’em up. I’ll teach them the basics of chestnut fights, and perhaps a new autumn tradition will begin in Manor Park.
ps If you’re a fan of chestnut fights, check out the official World Conker Championships. This year’s event takes place in two weeks in Northamptonshire, UK.
13 thoughts on “Chestnut Fights”
I shared the same passion for chestnut fights growing up in rural Ontario, Canada, so much so that the title of my recently released novel is “How to a Chestnut Fight”.
In case you’re interested, it is available at amazon.ca as well as http://www.chapters.indigo.ca
All the best,
Kitchener, Ontario – Chestnut fights reached almost fanatical proportions back in the late 70s. I never left home without a nail for drilling the holes and a shoelace. When the chestnut was dried out as hard as a rock we referred to it as a horse chestnut. Whenever a chestnut was defeated in battle you rub the victors chestnut with a piece of the losers and the winner effectively became 1 additional year old. I remember some guys bragging how their chestnuts were 50+ years old. A brand new chestnut that was not dried was sometimes referred to as a rubber dingy. They usually didn’t last long in battle. I do remember one occasion when my horse chestnut was destroyed in one shot by a massive rubber dingy but that was rare. We also had something called “chestnut scrambles”. Some dudes would bring fresh chestnuts to school and at recess yell out “chestnut scramble”. They would then toss the chestnut into the crowd and the kids literally killed each other to grab it. I remember many kids crying due to injury after a scramble. That was a long time ago. I doubt kids continued the tradition. Chestnut fights would not appeal to our current generation nothingness.
just showed my kids how to do a chestnut fight and the y loved it!
Wow! I’m surprised to see the first website that came up on google was from another Cambridge native. I grew up in Preston and went to St Michaels elementary school and have fond memories of chestnut fights in the schoolyard. You’re right….not many people outside of Cambridge know of chestnut fights. My father in law is the only non Cambridge native who has heard of them as he used to do the same thing in England when he was a kid. Good write up on your website. Brings back memories.
I remember these fights well.It was part of a fall ritual.It was called’conkers’ I am a Cambridge ,Ontario native
Googled this to explain Chestnut fights and found this! I grew up in Kitchener in the 80’s and there used to be a chestnut tree in the cemetery by my house. My brother and all of our friends used to have amazing fights. I totally forgot about the horse chestnut and rubbing it to “age” it. We used to call the ones we dried and were rock hard “Granny Chestnuts”…most likely because they were so wrinkled. Sigh…so much awesome nostalgia.
Reading your description I thought you went to our public school in Kitchener in the late 70’s. Same game played on the ground in the schoolyard. My neighbor enlisted my brother and I to harvest the chestnuts from his tree so all the other kids wouldn’t crush them on his sidewalk leaving semi permanent stains. We would fill our little red wagon and dad helped drill holes in them – those things were like currency at recess! We called our hardened champion chestnuts ‘rocks’ and every win ‘aged’ it one year plus the age of the losing nut. So if my new chestnut won a fight it became one year old, if it beat another new one it would become two years and so on, but if it beat an older nut it assumed all those years so we had some legendary rocks with lots of bragging rights!
Taught my kids to play but alas, it didn’t really catch on… Maybe if they made an Xbox version 🙂
Was searching chestnut fight and found this page. I just wantes to add more history. I grew up in kitchener and chestnut fights were big in my grade school in the late 70’s … maybe early 80s(Franklin school) before i moved to calgary. My family is Korean from Germany (asian kid playing conkers in cda… and i totally fitted in… )
We kids spent our spending money on hockey/baseball cards and big or aged chestnuts. Whoever had a big chestnut tree, was minting money. I remember one family who had trays and trays of aged chestnuts they sold to kids. I traded my best cards for the nuts.
Our neighbourhood and school had a lot of chestnut battle pits in the ground. I think we called it “crowning” or asked “how many crowns your chestnut have?” Which meant how many battles the nut won. If we win, we take the crowns … (but I’m sure it was a bit more complicated than that).
Really fun times swinging a chestnut on a shoelace smashing competitor nuts in a small dirt pit on the lawn/field. From probably 8 to 12 years old growing up in kitchener… meant chestnuts, playing hockey (ice/street), card trading, real snowball fights, etc..
Kitchener was a great place to grow up.
Funny, I went to Franklin school in the late 70’s too.
Chestnut fights at recess was the best in the fall before hockey season.
I sometimes wonder if the kids still do that.
We use to pelt each other with the lawn aeration cores after the tractor aerated the fields.
I wrote a story about chestnut fighting thinking everyone grew up doing it. To my surprise no one knew what I was talking about. A person I was explaining the game to googled it,. That’s how I found this site. I was blown away when I found out that an annual championship was still in play. Also I never heard of conkers until then. Everyone is from England and Canada, I’m from Mt. Vernon, NY. Amazing.
Anthony – I grew up in Mount Vernon in the 1950’s, now a Texan, and remember the chestnut fights that took place every autumn in the school playgrounds. After seeing a YouTube video on some group trying to come up with a disease resistant chestnut tree, I did a search on chestnut fights and found this page. So here I am sharing memories of chestnut fights with another kid from good old Mount Vernon, New York.
hi bob. Maybe we fought against each other back in the early 50s in Mt.. Vernon NY! my father ran a music school there until about 1954 when we moved to Raleigh. No chestnuts down here unfortunately.
Howdy John — Most of my chestnut fight participation was at the Our Lady of Victory schoolyard on Sidney Avenue. I had a great childhood growing up in the 1950’s in Mount Vernon. I was 9-years-old when you and your family left town for Raleigh.