Conkers: The unlikely contact sport taking London by storm

Conkers: The unlikely contact sport taking London by storm
Grazed knuckles, bleeding gums and smashed teeth – the Peckham Conker Championships is a no holds barred race to the golden nut.

“Kill him!” ricochets a bloodthirsty cry around the graffitied arches of London’s Peckham Rye station. On an uncharacteristically hot October afternoon, five hundred people are screaming. Dozens of knuckles are red raw and bleeding, clutching pints of pale ale. A red-headed woman flashes her breasts and a deeply grazed torso. Blood gushes from one man’s gums– his broken teeth scattered on the concrete floor. “What the fuck is going on?” question several passersby, clambering for a look out of the train station’s windows. This isn’t a brawl. It’s the Peckham Conker Championships, and it’s getting serious.

Conkers, typically, is a silly British game played by children across the UK every autumn. When horse chestnuts drop from their unfurled trees, players scoop them up, hole the nuts, thread a string through their centre and try to smash their opponent’s conker by swinging their own into it. The first recorded game happened on the Isle of Wight 175 years ago. Today, the World Conker Championships take place in Northamptonshire where the rules – stand one meter apart, don’t tamper or reuse your conkers, keep at least 20 cm of string between knuckle and nut are strictly enforced by finicky umpires. In Peckham, the competition is rambunctious: Battle Royale Rules– with cheating encouraged.

Christopher Quigley - the 45-year-old man at the helm of the conker mayhem - is (inexplicably) wearing a furry cat costume, standing to the left of a makeshift stage dubbed the “Theatre of Dreams”. He is brandishing the golden nut: a 23-carat conker gilded in gold leaf, which competitors can win, along with “life-changing kudos”. Chris started the Peckham Conker Club in 2017 after walking his dog around Peckham Rye Park and noticed its surplus of horse chestnut trees. In a world where an increasing number of British schools are banning conkers from the playground over health and safety fears, he’s leading the game’s boisterous resurgence, allowing players to wrestle each other to the floor and “pimp their nuts” to make them harder.

Like Ronaldo emerging from Old Trafford’s tunnel, a frisson travels through the arches as last year’s 29-year-old conker champion - Harry Hard Nut - arrives at the tournament to defend his title. Harry didn’t mean to become a conker champion. He’d just been collecting the nuts mindlessly in the park after moving to South East London, with no real agenda. Eventually, he and his brother Googled the rules of the game and stumbled across Chris’ tournament, which fortuitously was happening the very next day. Once in Peckham’s arches, he felt adrenaline take over his body and walked away the winner: “I was supposed to go down and just play a few games,” he says of the spontaneity. “Then I wound up on the biggest stage of my life.”

Nut wise, Harry is a purist and has hardened the conker he’ll use as today’s weapon in his sock drawer for the last 365 days. Like most competitors, he has the affluent artsy aesthetic of London’s hipster crowd: thick moustache, green cap, Nike Cortez trainers and tube socks. He could - as per Peckham Conker Club rules - use an array of martial arts-esque moves to take down his opponents: the Gravity Strike, Sidewinder, Super Chopper– but Harry hasn’t trained. His skill is simply his sturdiness: “I’m static. Stable. Sort of like a battering ram,” he says. “Plus, I’ve got reasonable hand-eye coordination and that’s what it’s all about […] I'm gonna win, probably.”

Luca, a 25-year-old construction worker who’s been attending the tournament for two years reckons he can take him. He’s got a secret weapon: a concrete resin-filled conker, which he got the guys from his site to help him construct. “The first year I got to the quarter-finals and I think I broke my finger,” he says of his turbulent conker past. “They say there are no rules. So, I’ve taken that quite literally… Make the hardest object you can… No technique. Pure force. It’s all about power.”

For the tournament’s qualifying rounds, competitors are divided into 32 groups of six to battle against each other, with only one player progressing to the next round – meaning there are roughly 60 games of conkers going on at any one time in a space no wider than the length of a minivan. Shards of nuts are flying into the hoards of spectators’ faces. Strings are swinging savagely at all angles, smashing nut after nut apart. Behind a merch stand selling “Nut Sacks” and conker tees, sits art student Catrina – whose sole job for the past two weeks has been collecting a 2,000 conker supply from London parks for contestants to buy when whatever reserves they’ve brought themselves are obliterated.

Luca’s girlfriend, Juliette ‘Conkertrix’, collected her initial nuts of choice from the New Forest National Park in Hampshire weeks ago to give them time to harden. She’s wearing black leather gloves to protect her hands from injury, learning from her past mistakes. Soon, we spot her wrestling one man into a headlock as she tries to stamp his conker to smithereens. Deservedly, Juliette’s fearlessness earns her a place in the next round. But Luca’s concrete conker does not. “I feel like I should have done better than that,” he mourns. “People were saying concrete isn’t allowed. I don’t know who told them.” Betrayal is afoot.

Reigning champion Harry Hard Nut breezes through the group stages. “I wasn’t going to go easy on anyone because what’s the point?” he says of his qualifier mindset. “There were a few people that obviously thought ‘Oh this will be fun’ but I just destroy them – with respect.” His savage energy continues into the quarter-finals. Harry sees off all his competitors – including Juliette who defiantly flashes the crowd afterwards – with ease: Three on-target triple hit swings and his opponent’s conker is pulp. Another victory is almost in the bag until the semi-finals – and the emergence of Pietro ‘The Stamper’ Piantanida.

Hailing from Milan, 29-year-old Pietro – with his chic floppy hair and indigo chore coat – had never heard of conkers before today. “Couple of beers, couple of rounds of conkers,” his British mate had propositioned him after seeing an ad for the Peckham Conker Championships on Instagram. Half an hour before they were set to leave, Pietro and three other Italian friends huddled around a screen to read the rules of the game online, before dousing a conker in superglue for added strength and heading out the door. They had no idea what they were in for.

Yet, despite his childhood conker inexperience, Pietro sailed through the group stages, stamping his opponent’s nuts to dust as soon as they fell to the ground – much to the shock and awe of his entourage. “Everyone just kept looking at each other like ‘he’s fucking won again,’” he says. “Like, what the fuck is happening here?” Now the Milanese opportunist finds himself about to face the double-his-size returning champion in front of roughly 500 spectators. If he’s bricking it— you can’t tell.

“I just broke my teeth. I’m not going to forfeit. Am I?”

Pietro ‘The Stamper’ Piantanida

Harry swings into Pietro’s conker with the dependable accuracy which has seen him glide to the semi-finals without breaking a sweat. But Pietro is returning the force. Whack after whack until suddenly their conker strings tangle. A tug of war ensues. Harry heaves one ginormous tug and Pietro is spun, spiraling, straight over Harry’s shoulder. Face meets floor. He stands, face bloodied, two front teeth cracked in half. Stunned. Slow. “You can always forfeit if you want to,” Chris tells him. “That drove me crazy,” Pietro admits in the aftermath. “I just broke my teeth. I’m not going to forfeit. Am I?” Somewhere between the blood and the bravery– the crowd’s allegiance switches to side with him.

Chants of “Pi-et-ro” ring through the arches. His performance is theatrical. Shrugging in faux dismissal of Harry’s skill as the game continues. He throws the crowd side-eye expressions, playing with their investment in his every move: rolls back his shoulders, nods confidently, tells himself “Okay. Okay”, takes aim and swings. His conker tangles with Harry’s again. They slam against the wall, spinning round until - as suddenly as it began - it’s over. Harry Hard Nut, 2022 champion, is out of the tournament. Pietro, victorious, shakes both hands into the air like a conductor indicating a crescendo. The crowd obliges as screams of celebration reach optimum volume. Pints are thrown in the air.

The vibes are so immaculate we almost forget about the final. Pietro has one more challenge to face - a man called Finn from Stockwell - before he can get his hand on the 23-carat gold nut. But the Italian is not in a good way. He’s lost half his front teeth, his lip is swelling, he’s seven pints deep (“I was dehydrated!”) and - due to some admin confusion - he actually played two quarterfinals and two semi-finals (double the number of matches of his competitor) to reach this point. He’s knackered. And, potentially, concussed from kissing the concrete.

Swing after swing is swung but Pietro has no hits on target. Finn is frustrated, striking Pietro’s nut every time without an all-important break. After several minutes, and maybe twenty swings, the crowd chants for a “nut inspection” to analyse any cracks which may have appeared on either man’s apparatus. But, in the end, the victory comes down to brute force. Strings tangle once again. Finn’s knot flies apart and Pietro - poised and ready - stamps his way to victory. The crowd passionately applauds. Chris runs towards him proudly, golden nut in hand. Life-changing kudos is in the air as the sun sets over the arches.

When I catch up with Pietro two days later, the high of victory is still radiating off him. He’s just got off FaceTime with his mum in Milan - carefully holding the phone away from his injuries so she can’t see the full extent of his chipped teeth and ballooning lips. He’s been showing the golden nut to his colleagues on Zoom - on an average day, he’s a consultant - and hopes to have the prize framed. “I’ve been proudly boasting,” Pietro admits with a grin, adding he’ll be back in Peckham next year to defend his title: “I kind of have to, don’t I?” he says. “Absolutely. It’s a date.” Harry, Luca and Juliette all confirm they plan to return and avenge their losses, too.

Even with the drama, draft beers, and disorder of the annual Peckham Conker Championships, on first glance it’s still baffling why the UK loves this game so much. It has big “the Brits are at it again” energy. A definitely quirky pastime. But to find the appeal, all you’d have to do is watch the Peckham children’s tournament, which goes ahead of the adult showdown, where a tiny seven-year-old pale blonde boy called Edmund swung his way to victory, flexing his non-existent muscles in prematurely alpha-male celebration. Essentially, conkers is a fucking great game, which any person, without prerequisite strength or skill can play. “The romantic side is conkers are something anyone can just pick up off the floor,” says Harry. “It’s fun. Everyone’s pissed up, cheering, going mad— for two horse chestnuts on a string. That’s the beauty.”

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