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

The Simple Things - - ESCAPE -

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.

MAGIC MUSH­ROOMS

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

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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

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