Autumn is the time when items fall from trees with great regularity. Acorns and conkers can be caught in great numbers. In Ludlow in the first week of October there’s a festival that tests contestants’ catching stamina to the full.
This is the Ludlow Catching Acorns and Conkers Festival a contest that takes place between the hours of 6 a.m. and 7 p.m. on seven consecutive days. The trees used in the festival are either English Oak trees or Horse Chestnut trees and a different tree is used each day.
The number of contestants is limited to 30 people each year, so that they can all fit comfortably under one tree. These people comprise the top 20 catchers from the previous year’s contest plus 10 others who have come through the regional pre-qualifying rounds. Competitors can only wear a smock without pockets during the event and are always strip-searched before competition begins to ensure they aren’t concealing any acorns or conkers about their person. Acorns and conkers are referred to as Tree Fruit at the festival.
The idea behind the contest is that the competitors stand under the tree and try to collect the tree Fruit that fall before they hit the ground. Anyone who picks up an acorn or conker after it’s hit the ground will be disqualified by one of the Seeing Judges, who also stand under the tree. These judges also keep a tally of those contestants who have caught a tree fruit and then they remove the fruit from the playing area so that it can’t be reused by an unscrupulous contestant.
This is a result of the Barry Jackson affair of 1846 – Jackson used to catch the fruit, store them in a bowl, and then throw them up in the air again when no-one was looking. He’d catch the fruit and so score another point. He was only found out on Day five after claiming to have caught an acorn under a horse chestnut tree. He was banned for life with immediate effect and went back to his previous job as the official Village Idiot in nearby Church Stretton.
The most successful contestant was Roger Silas who won the festival in 1782, 1788, and 1801 – the only person to have won three times. He was like lightning and not averse to throwing himself full length to catch the tree fruit just before they hit the ground. His winning haul of 511 acorns and 312 conkers in 1788 is still a record. He trained for the event by standing under trees in the local park for three days straight and staring upwards at all times. Alas this behaviour stayed with him for the rest of his life and he was run over by a train near Birmingham in 1838.
The biggest scandal, even surpassing the Jackson affair, was the Biggs Jackdaw Scandal of 1891. Thomas Biggs thought that he could win by training his pet jackdaw, Reuben, to jump around in the tree above his head and so either loosen the tree fruit or throw them to Biggs when he was on his own under the tree. This worked for the first three days until a judge saw the jackdaw throw a conker to Biggs as he leaned against the trunk of the tree. Both Biggs and Reuben were forbidden to take part in the festival for the rest of recorded time. Biggs never recovered from the ignominy of his ban and died in solitude in Gloucester in 1912. However, Reuben made a living by starring in his own dart throwing show at local fairs.
The Acorn and Conker catching contest has an interesting rule whereby if no acorn or conker has fallen for an hour then the chief counting judge shouts “release the squirrels.” The Squirrel Containment Officer then releases five squirrels into the tree. The idea is that the activity of the squirrels ensures that some tree fruit are disturbed and fall towards the ground. These squirrels are kept in a cage during the contest and released back into the wild once it’s over.
There have been some accidents largely when people charge into each other when trying to catch the same tree fruit. Others have suffered eye injuries when misjudging the velocity of a falling conker, especially from the Cripple Horse Chestnut which is over 200 feet high. As recently as 2007, a competitor had to be rushed to hospital after swallowing a conker that had deflected from another contestant’s head. This is why the Health and Safety Executive encourages participants to wear facial masks at all times as well as knee and elbow pads.
Roger Silas best summed up the spirit of the festival when he said “Ye conteste had made me loiffe compleeet and Oive started many friendships under them trres, which have lasted a loifetime.”
This is an extract from the book 40 Humourous British Traditions by Julian Worker