September is not only Roald Dahl's birth month, it's also the month of the conker!
Like most school children, Roald Dahl’s most important times at school were often not his lessons but the latest craze in the playground. For several years at St Peter’s School in Weston-Super-Mare, the main sport was not football or rugby, but the mighty challenge of the boys’ conker tournaments, in the September and October when he went back to school after the holidays.
These contests were deadly serious – in the letters sent home to his mother and sisters Alfhild, Asta and Else, Roald begged them to send him the conkers, (or in his slightly wonky spelling, ‘conquers’), gathered the previous year from their conker tree in the garden of their home in Kent, so that he would have a ready supply of missiles.
Above: extract from one of Roald Dahl's letters home
In the September chapter of My Year, Roald recalls these tournaments, including how to select and prepare a champion fighting conker (no short cuts allowed – it must be the proper wedge shape and dried slowly for a year), how there are approved methods of swinging the conker and the correct way to stand. He also tells us that at the age of nine, his enthusiasm was so great he created a special Conker Practising Machine, with six conkers strung up in a row so that he could perfect his aim:
Let’s face it, you don’t become top class at any sport, be it golf or tennis or snooker or conkers, unless you practice long and hard.
The craze for conker battles seems to have carried on for several years – although at one point Roald rather sadly tells his sisters not to send him any more conkers – clearly the boys’ enthusiasm for the sport had got a little too much:
Please tell Baby not to bring the conkers because we have been stopped playing with them.
However, the following year the battles were back on, and in a letter to his mother, Roald triumphantly writes that he has the highest conker in the school, a 243 – meaning that this conker had beaten 243 challengers.
In My Year, Roald remembers writing a letter to The Times newspaper in 1989, ‘bemoaning’ the fact that conkers was a game of the past.
To his delight, he received many replies from children all over the country, with drawings and descriptions of how they played. He treasured these letters from conker fans, keeping them in a file in his Writing Hut:
From these letters I learnt that the whole of Britain is still alive with ardent conker players.
Above: some of the letters Roald Dahl received.
Along with collecting conkers, Roald’s other favourite part of September was that he could forage for edible treats in the woods and fields. He describes looking for blackberries in the hedgerows, hazelnuts in the trees, and perhaps even early apples.
Now that the heat of the summer has passed, it’s the perfect time to get out into the woods and with some expert advice, hunt for some of the best things that autumn can provide. If you’re visiting the Roald Dahl Museum, why not take our countryside trail into the Great Missenden woods where Roald would have strolled and see what you can find there.