About Mudchute

Mudchute Park & Farm. One of the largest city farms in London with 32 acres of countryside in the middle of the Isle of Dogs.
Conkers (Horse Chestnuts) - not edible!

Conkers (Horse Chestnuts) – not edible!

I remember how exciting it felt to find the first conkers of the season.

You could find them gleaming, nestled into the crispy orange brown leaves. Little mahogany bubbles with contour swirls that were almost iridescent.

I remember searching for the perfect one. Thinking I’d found it, then seeing another perfect one and another and another.

Collecting them was for me the best bit of the whole of conker season.

But there was the tradition of playing an age old game with them.

My grandparents told me that they used to bake the conkers in the oven or boil them in vinegar to harden them. I tried both of these and I tried using the conkers just as I found them.

The trick was to find a way of drilling or hammering a hole through the fat middle of the conker with its pale beige-pink patch at the top. Then you cut a length of string about two feet or 60 cm long. Thread the string through the hole and tie a big triple knot at the end of the string to stop the conker falling off.

The game is between two people each with a conker on a string. You stand facing each other, at a convenient sociable distance, one holds their conker at arms length in front of them, keeping it very very still. The other player tries to swing their conker, aimed to hit their opponents’. Then the players swap roles. The aim is not only to hit the other conker, but to smash it to bits. There are regional variations to the game, but that is the basic outline.

There is a modern myth about playing conkers at school which seems to have stopped children from enjoying this free seasonal marker that generations before them have loved so much.

The story goes that children had been getting specks of shattered conkers in their eyes, so a headteacher had made the children wear googles and padded gloves while they were playing.

From this rumour it was a short step to schools all over Britain banning conkers.

The Health and Saftey Executive say that “realistically the risk from playing conkers is incredibly low and just not bothering about.”
https://www.hse.gov.uk/myth/september.htm

Another bonus to conker season is that you can make your own laundry detergent.

We are very used to going and buying super dooper washing powders and liquids, so it seems unimaginable that a traditional natural home made recipe would work. But recently some people have switched from chemical products to using “soap nuts” which are flown half way across the world to us in the UK. However the creamy coloured nut inside conkers contain the same soap like substance, saponin, and many people say that they work every bit as well as a cheap environmentally friendly replacement for laundry detergents.

If you want to try this out you can find several different recipes on line, but basically it goes like this.

  • Smash each conker into little chunks, then grind them in a blender until they are rough crumbs.
  • Place them in a thin layer on a baking paper lined sheet, and bake them gently in the oven, until they are dry but preferably not burned.
  • Let them cool and then store them in a not quite airtight container, (you don’t want them to sweat and get moist and go mouldy.)
  • When you are ready to make up a batch of washing liquid, let a tablespoonful per load of washing seep in warm water for half an hour. When the water has turned milky pour it into a container through a sieve to get rid of the crumbs of chestnut. Use the liquid as you would use a washing liquid.if you want to you can add a few drops of essential oils to give it a fragrance, otherwise it has a very neutral smell.

So let’s make this autumn one where children are taught how to play conkers again by their grown ups, so that they get as excited by the new season as we used to. And try out a way of doing washing without expensive chemical products. A time to turn over new orange brown leaves perhaps.

Enjoy conker season.

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The days of lockdown stopped being a novelty. It was our new way of being. We did it together.

On our street we settled into a comfortable rhythm of playing.

Most parents were still furloughed and spending long hours with the children.

Some had created timetables for school work and were building into those timetables an hour of exercise and at least an hour of street playing.

All the parents would come and hang out while the children playing. All of them agreed that this sociably distanced, unstructured time was helping all of them to stay upbeat and given them something to look forward to each day.

We knew that some of our older residents who were being super, super careful were watching us from their front rooms. They were happy for little family knots to set up camp on their stairs too. They said it was ‘The one good thing to have come out of all of this.’

We had a regular set of play things that we used. There were always bubbles and chalk. The hopscotch had lasted for ages because there had been no rain to wash it away. I tried to make sure we always had our giant biodegradable balloons who the children had learned how to inflate with a little electric pump.

We made plastic bag kites, and we collected together a box full of plastic water bottles which we filled with a little water and made into skittles.

Some of the boys decided to play with nerf guns, some helped me to identify the weeds that were growing in the cracks between the paving slabs. We even found a few resilient little ferns which we all took away to replant. We planted sunflower seeds too.

One family played with a frisbee which kept ended up under the parked cars and in the areas down the front of the houses. The children were unafraid of knocking on doors, then standing back and asking from a safe distance if they could have the frisbee back. But one house was unoccupied, so together they children worked out various ways that they could get it back. They settled on a plan that involved a bucket attached to a rope and an old For Sale estates agents sign. With the adults doing the donkey work, under instruction, they spent a good hour getting that frisbee back.

Visitors from nearby street started to come and join us. These were families who all knew each other from local schools. They chalked and painted very earnestly, their own streets were not suitable for playing out, and we were happy to welcome them. But it was heart wrenching to watch the children start out to rush to greet each other, then stop themselves in their tracks when they realised they couldn’t hug or play together as they had been used to. ‘It’s overwhelming’ one child told me.

The grown ups were amazing. They welcomed visiting children, and supported all of them to find ways to play alongside each other without coming close. The new games were adopted and welcomed and became ingrained into adapted play patterns . They were aware of how the children must be feeling and were gentle with those feelings.

Our Sundays became more and more like festivals. They stretched on for a couple of hours. A bizarre patchwork of music played, coffee teas and snacks came out. One neighbour said that even if she had forgotten the Sunday fun, the stream of bubbles floating up the road carried the message for her. An isolated neighbour felt well enough to walk up the road a way, we found her a chair and she joined in at a distance.

We all agreed that this thing was indeed ‘the one good thing to come out of all this.’ We all were becoming close and looking after each other, swapping ladders and elder flowers to make cordial, and seedlings and a weekly street bread order and doing shopping for each other and exchanging news.

This is how the street must have been years ago.

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