Saturday, May 23, 2009


Trees. Conker trees. Or to be more accurate Horse Chestnut trees are wonderful, wondrous things. I‘ve always loved them ~ perhaps rather more than is logical ~ going all the way back to that mad scramble for the conker that fell naturally from the tree in our school playground all those years ago. We used to gather beneath the tree and await yet further proof of gravity’s intransigent effects (Apples? Sir Henry Newton? Pah!!) and we did so with all the fervour and expectancy that only the exuberance and unfettered hope of early childhood can bring. The modern day obsession with health and safety was not for us as we risked life and limb, or at least a nasty bang on the noggin, firstly by being struck by the much sought after nut as it plummeted with ever increasing velocity along a course the randomness of which could only have come from a series of ricochets earthwards and secondly in the madcap scramble to be first to pick it up as it bounced away shedding bits of outer shell like shrapnel as it did. Just one false move and the race was lost as was the prize which went elsewhere.

Loads of kids. One conker. It was a metaphor in many ways for a lifetime as an Argyle fan. The long wait, the hope, the thrill, the occasional wondrous victory and the more common feeling of disappointment as one of the bigger boys barged me out of the way before claiming the prize. “Never mind” I would tell myself. “There’s always next time".

As I got older and conkers became less important to me the trees on which they grew began to lend a not inconsiderable influence on my childhood. I climbed them and sheltered under them from both rain and sun with the foliage offering equally good protection against each. I guess the great indigenous deciduous trees are similar in many ways but the conker tree was always the greatest out of them all. OK ~ so oak trees have acorns… Great. Sorry not even the glimmer of a buzz about that fine though they may be. Beech trees? Lots of nuts. Popular enough as they are, and I’m sure that they have their own supporters, but they just do not compare. I am neither a pig nor a squirrel and they just merge into the background with all the rest of our native deciduous trees and don’t even get me started on conifers. Conifers are always the same. What is the point of them? Dull, dull, dull, dull, dull! Begone you nefarious interlopers you play no part in this tale!!

Conker trees just grow so big. I mean really big. Often not just the tallest tree in the forest or park but usually the one that spreads it’s branches the farthest too. Does the oak tree have a “Macarena” (a song with a dance to match that is) of its own? No it does not and neither do any of the others. It offers the most delicious shade on the hottest of days in the summer and keeps the rain off, too, for about half of the year. If you spit on a leaf and squish it up a bit it oozes a soapy slime that will do to wash your hands too should an emergency arise and the wood is just perfect for carving a Long John Silver style wooden leg should you need to but I digress...

The conker tree for me defines the passing of time and relates intimately to the rhythms of each football season as each passes through its own pre-ordained cycle just as it must in order to justify its very existence.

The start of the pre-season sees the conker tree at is mightiest and most powerful. It is a truly majestic sight and stands proud just as our hopes for the coming season do. Full of swagger and bravado as each and every tiny breeze ruffles its leaves just as each leaf somehow, magically, inexorably tracks the sun on its celestial journey. It is at this time that the tree is working at its hardest as its root structure acting as a scouting network as it searches out every last precious drop of moisture just as a football scout searches for every morsel of talent. That Special One must be out there awaiting discovery and the bigger the scouting network the better just as the biggest and best root system divines for the precious water that will sustain the parent tree.

Gradually over the course of the close season the conkers start to appear on the tree. Small at first their shells eventually turn from green to brown and start to get spikey as they enlarge. The nut inside the outer shell swells as it packs as much of the energy siphoned from sun and soil as it can into its kernel. In a way the tree is doing its pre-season training. It is the work done now that will pay off in due course. That conker needs to be fighting fit if it is to germinate and produce a new sapling.

The small boys delight in the conkers that fall in September and October and progress for the rest of the season can be set in these two months for any team. A few good wins and anything is possible. Several defeats and a long, hard struggle awaits. The turmoil and upheaval of these months is really quite spectacular and the difference between winning a game and losing is huge with so few points posted at such an early stage. If we are lucky the points will fall upon us just as the treasured nuts fall onto the autumnal pastures beneath the trees that performed the miracle that produces them.

The tree then begins to shed its leaves. There is a sadness about this time of the year as the days get shorter, darker, cooler and wetter. The fallen leaves mulch, line gutters, block drains and make roads slippery but all is not doom and gloom because it also means the FA Cup is about to start and the 1st Round of that must surely add a spring to the step of any true football fan.

The long, hard slog for both football fan and tree that is winter follows. More horrid weather and ever shortening days. Gales and foul weather abound as the tree is beset by wind, rain and frost. The tree bears it all with great stoicism just as the football fan does. Just as surely our brave boys are battling against their own adversity as every team strives to get a jump on the other twenty-two and the twenty-two are all hell bent on doing all they can to foul it up for the one that is ours. The conker tree is at it’s leanest at this stage. No buds, flowers, leaves or conkers as it stands dormant and thinking solely of its own survival. Nothing extraneous with which to over complicate the job in hand. Nothing to place greater strain upon it than needs be. The tree will bend and give in acknowledgement to the greater powers that beset it but it still stands defiant knowing that better days are soon to come.

Eventually the first sticky buds arrive, the days begin to lengthen and the FA Cup hits Round 3 and as it does so it signals the sharpest end of the football season. Will it be glory or disaster? Just as fate of our team hurtles headlong into destiny so the tree goes into overdrive. First buds, then leaves, then the flowers which will drop their tiny little pink petals all over your car and make it all sticky if you park beneath it at the wrong time. The flowers on the tree come with the end of the season for the ordinary football team, player and supporter. There may be a summer tournament but they usually happen overseas oblivious to the eternal cycles of birth, death and rebirth that are so familiar to football fans, arborealogists and little boys alike. Slowly, almost imperceptibly the conkers, hidden by the millions of leaves are born.

Next time you stroll up through Central Park from the Barn Park entrance and wander through the avenue of conker trees wonder at them too. Beautiful though they are in any season their life cycle is part of yours and of our club’s. In the struggle for both success and survival they echo each other more than you might think just as that mad playground scramble for the fallen conker echoes our hopes and dreams.

Sadly there is a sting to my idle musing. I have regularly walked that path for decades man and boy and not once have I ever seen a conker from any of those trees. Perhaps there’s a metaphor there too.


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