how to do autumn well
IF YOU HAVE THIS SEASON IN YOUR HEART ALL YEAR ROUND, OCTOBER IS THE TIME TO SEIZE A SATURDAY TO FORAGE, FEAST AND CONKER FIGHT, SAYS IONA BOWER
There was a competitive glint in my eye that mellow, fruitful Saturday when I decided I was going to Win at Autumn. By October, the community-minded, back-to-school spirit of September has given way to a simple yearning to trounce some swingy-pony-tailed girl at something and emerge victorious. When I saw the poster advertising a conkers championship, I emptied my diary. I was going to nail autumn.
Conkers fulfil all the autumnal needs of a glory hunter like me; the gathering is as important as the game itself. I spent weeks with one covetous eye on the large horse chestnut outside the local church. I took several early morning detours to keep an eye on the best ripening conkers. The paper boy feared me, the vicar eyed me optimistically as a potential convert, local dogs looked on, bemused. When they fell – such treasure! Beneath prickly green shells and white, mushroomy skins were dark conkers so shiny they seemed to glow.
Some were bottled in vinegar, others frozen, more put in a low oven, in a »
series of experiments to see which method would create the strongest specimen (there was also a control group, of course).
I was devastated on arriving at Bonkers for Conkers, held annually at the Langham Brewery, West Sussex, to be told that my conkers would not be allowed into the ring. Standard conkers are supplied. But onwards and upwards.
Rules are strict, attention to health and safety slack – although children and anxious others were handed helmets and goggles. We decided to field my husband, instead of me, since he has arms like a gorilla and better eyesight. (Dian Fossey would have had him away had I not stepped in and married him). From a field of 40 or so, he made it to the semi-finals before succumbing to a more bonkers conker. I counted it a win.
So how did our crazy conker obsessions begin? The first recorded game of conkers was on the Isle of Wight in 1848, and while the origin of the word ‘conker’ is unknown, it’s thought to be derived from the word conch, referring to the original use of a snail shell.
Conkers championships happen all over the country in October, where a dangerously competitive streak runs alongside a fabulously mad feel. Bonkers (this year on 14 October) is a brilliant example. “It’s a traditional day out the brewery is proud to observe,” says Lesley Foulkes, one of the organisers.
“The holes are drilled to a standard size, brown shoe laces are used to string the conkers and all are cut to world championship length,” says, Lesley, firmly.
Over in Southwick, Northamptonshire, the World Conker Championships is also about to kick off. Committee member St John Burkett has some hot tips: “There are various techniques – the ‘downward slash’; the ‘sideswipe’; the ‘chip’, where you
“From pumpkin-picking to carving events and dusk lantern displays, you’ll find an outing that speaks to you”
make sure you hit your opponent’s conker, but without the force that might break your own.” Lesley is more upfront in her approach: “Accuracy and a clean strike. We do not allow stampsies.* If all that sounds a bit, well, bonkers… you could always host your own championships, where rules (and conkers) can be wantonly broken.
CONKERS WITHOUT COMBAT
If the sheer thrill of collecting is enough, you might like to try other uses for your conker haul. The Woodland Trust suggests dolls’ house furniture (a few carefully inserted matches create a lovely table); leaving them in your wardrobe to deter moths (they contain moth-repelling triterpenoid) or even using them, as Vikings did, crushed up as soap. And what of the rumour they deter spiders? “We do have people collecting the spare conkers at the championships to take home to deal with spiders,” says St John. “One in each corner of the room seems to do it.”
However you use your haul, when you find your first conker of the season, you should declare aloud: “Oddly oddly onker, my first conker”. We don’t know what happens if you don’t, but you should.
And if conkers aren’t your autumnal bag, there are lots more ways to celebrate the season on a slightly misty weekend.
A BIT OF A SQUASH
If the idea of harvest floats your autumnal boat, there’s nothing that will butter your nut like a pumpkin festival.
Slindon Annual Pumpkin Display near Arundel is where, for 50 years, the Upton family has been growing various cucurbits.** Robin Upton, who’s passionate about retaining Slindon’s title as Pumpkin Capital of the UK, tells me there are more than 900,000 cucurbit varieties. On an afternoon at Slindon Pumpkins you can peruse produce for sale, pick up a recipe
book or buy some gourds to decorate your home. It’s a positive plethora of pumpkins.
Similar events happen all over the UK in the run-up to Halloween; find one locally at pumpkinpatchesandmore.org. From pumpkin-picking at local farms to carving events at garden centres and dusk lantern displays in woods and commons, you’ll find an outing that speaks to you.
But what to do with your pumpkins*? With decorative gourds, Robin says you can make utensils, musical instruments, even birds’ nests! With eaters: “Soup, curries, bread, cake, relish and chutney.” Does Robin have a favourite though? “I don’t have a favourite cucurbit; to me they are all equal.” We feel bad for asking now.
AN APPLE A DAY
Apple Day is a modern tradition, celebrated since only 1990 on 21 October, but there are appley activities right through October, whether you want to pick, press, sculpt or swig (cider events figure, too). There are bobbing competitions, apple shies and apple-and-spoon races to enjoy, as well.
At the National Trust’s Killerton in Devon, apples are celebrated all month. Fiona Hailstone, produce ranger at Killerton, notes the way Apple Day binds our tiny communities: “It celebrates the diversity of apple varieties across the country, linking up local heritages.” There are 3,000 types in the UK and, at Killerton alone, around 100, including the colourfully
named sweet cider varieties, ‘Hangy down’ and ‘Slack ma girdle’. But this is the essence of Apple Day – a rude joke being just as important as a serious harvest. “Apple days leave you heading home with great memories, as well as fabulous things for dinner,” says Fiona. “Nothing quite warms the cockles after a fresh autumn day like apple and cider cake.” It’s enough to slack your girdle. To find apple days local to you, visit commonground.org.uk/apple-day.
Mushrooms are so autumn they practically invite you in for a buttered crumpet and pop your gloves on the Aga to dry. John Wright, River Cottage’s foraging expert, explains why mushrooming holds such autumnal appeal: “In walking to find food, we engage with the natural world in the way ‘intended’ and in a deeper way than when just taking a walk for the air.”
Mushrooms may require more knowhow than foraging for, say, blackberries, but John says a little care goes a long way: “I didn’t learn from an expert, but by going out many times to collect specimens and work things out from books.” If you’re going it alone, John suggests seeking out old grassland, parkland and woods that contain oak, beech, birch, pine or spruce. However, as he points out: “Going out with an expert certainly saves time, and it can be fun!”
Wild Food UK (wildfooduk.com) hosts mushroom foraging courses all over the UK and has a guide to edible mushrooms on its website. John runs the courses at River Cottage, but if you’re heading out solo, his tips are wood and field blewits – “superb fungi with a slightly floral flavour”. He says the best way to enjoy them is to keep it simple: “Sautéed. Garlic. Cream. Toast. No question.” And what could be nicer, after a day out in the woods than to come home and whip up a plate of garlicky mushrooms?
Bask in the glory of a day filled with fresh air and nature’s own treasures as you hang up your conkers in the hall, get a pumpkin stew on the hob and pour yourself a cider. Sometimes, but especially in autumn, the best part of a day out is the coming in.
River Cottage is offering Simple Things readers 15% off mushroom foraging days. Use the code MUSHROOMS when booking.
“Mushrooms are so autumn they practically invite you in for crumpets”
Around the bounty of autumn have sprung up seasonal traditions, from conker festivals to apple days; or you could mark the season with something as simple as collecting colourful leaves on an afternoon walk
Distraction technique 1 No1: lurid fancy dress.2 Our intrepid reporter’s husband (right) limbers up for the semi-finals. 3 Competitive combat for all ages. 4 World Conker champions. 5 Enjoying a gourd day out at Slindon