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Is the game of Conkers really dangerous?

By ERIC SHACKLE, in Sydney, Australia

The ancient game of conkers may be making a comeback in Britain, after being banned from many school playgrounds several years ago, when it was condemned as dangerous.

Not everyone agreed. Three years ago, Shaun Halfpenny, headmaster of Cummersdale primary school in Cumbria, bought safety goggles for his students so they could continue playing conkers.

He was worried the local council would ban the game because of fears of eye injuries.

"The children asked to play conkers in school and I thought it would be really mean if I said no," he explained.

But other teachers feared parents might sue them if their children were hurt while playing conkers. (Since then, several schools, hospitals, businesses and local authorities have banned cut flowers, knitting needles, balloons and home-baked cakes, because they might be considered dangerous).

"A survey by Keele University researcher Sarah Thomson shows some schools have banned conkers because they fear the horse chestnuts could be used as 'offensive weapons,'" the BBC reported in December 2000.

"Other schools have banned football on the grounds that it is anti-social, while another has banned skipping after some girls fell over."

Now the pendulum is swinging the other way. A few weeks ago David Willetts MP said "We have all heard about schools which have banned conkers unless children wear safety goggles; the school which banned daisy-chains because they are unhygienic; the council which banned backstroke in its swimming pool to avoid collisions...

"Children should be able to enjoy a world of conkers, yo-yos and snowballs."

Lisa Fowlie, president of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, said children need to learn how to manage everyday risks. An occasional bump or bruise was just part of growing up.

The institution backed up those words by sponsoring the 2007 World Conker Championships, held in Ashton, Northamptonshire, on October 14, and even formed a staff team to compete.

"Neil Budworth, a former president of the institution and member of its team of four, was knocked out in the third round by a man dressed as a crocodile.," The Times reported next day.

“I don’t think the public think conkers are dangerous,” said Mr Budworth. “But we are still getting a bad time because of these odd decisions that get blamed on health and safety.

“It all started a few years ago when a school banned kids from playing conkers unless they wore goggles. It was a stupid decision that came to exemplify these sorts of stupid decisions.”

Peter Morris, of the Ashton Conker Club, said: “Players can take whatever armour they want and it’s up to them if they wear goggles.”

Adrian Hurrell, a train driver from Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, won this year's championship, beating John Ingram, an Englishman and honorary Frenchman who runs a B&B in France.

Of course, as in most games and sports, there's always some smart guy who tries to cheat while playing conkers. Here's what the official championship website says:

The kudos of having a high-ranked winning conker is not limited to the playground and there have been many traditional ways of (illegally) hardening conkers before battling.

Hardening methods include soaking or boiling the conkers in vinegar or salt water; soaking in paraffin; partially baking them for about a half hour in the oven to case-harden them; coating them with clear nail-varnish; filling them with glue or simply storing them in the dark for a year (the shrivelled ones often seem to get the better of the young shiny ones).

My favourite however is that described by two-times World Conker Champion Charlie Bray who says, “There are many underhanded ways of making your conker harder. The best is to pass it through a pig. The conker will harden by soaking in its stomach juices. Then you search through the pig’s waste to find the conker.” Yuk!

FOOTNOTE. Anyone who has ever played conkers will enjoy reading a delightful story by Brendan O'Neill (see third link below).


Story first posted November 2007

Copyright © 2007

Eric Shackle

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