‘when we are married’

Last night, struggling to get to sleep, I was noticing that December is pretty much here.  Advent.  Newness, new-life, salvation & all that.

It's funny how (for most of us) it's a winter festival – a festival of light at the darkest time, and of life when all around is bare and empty.  Good theology.


I've been away from my homeland for about 8 weeks now – when I left, Devon was just beginning to lean towards Autumn, although the leaves were all on the trees, the sun was out and the blackberries were still making my country walks slower than otherwise.  South Carolina is just reaching a similar stage now.

How does that feel?  I feel like I've been in stasis for 2 months – I've got married, been on honeymoon, been to California and back, etc.etc. – but no time seems to have elapsed in the world outside.

Yesterday, when we were talking about what we'd be doing once our visa arrives and we can finally come back to Britain and normality, Maria (accidently) said, "Yeah, when we're married we can …".  That's how it feels – like we've had the ceremony but are yet to actually be married; to actually live as husband and wife.

It's like we're in the Christmas season, but aren't feeling Christmassy.  We are in Advent, but the actually new life hasn't really started yet.





If, as has been suggested, the name of this sport originates from the French conque (meaning conch, as in the sea snail) rather than the more trational conquer, the roots of conkers may lie in the smashing together of snail-shells, rather than hardened horse-chestnut seeds, and may even be French.  In any case, since the horse-chestnut tree was only brought into the British Isles in the late 16th Century, the game (including many regional variations in rules and nomenclature) must have been widespread before the adoption of the present means.

Whether shells or hazelnuts were the anticedents, something akin to the modern game of conkers has been played by children in the British Isles since antiquity, spreading to British colonies and other countries in more recent times.



Every Autumn, horse-chestnut trees drop seeds that are large and covered in green, spiked flesh.  Once peeled, the conker itself is brown, hard and tough – easily collectable and perfect for its role, as well as being (in contrast to other chestnuts) inedible.  Boring a hole with a skewer – or, even better, a gimlet – and threading string or a shoelace is all the preparation required.

In 1965, a group of regulars at a pub in Ashton, Northamptonshire, had their fishing trip rained off.  Looking for another way to make their gathering worthwhile, they saw that Ashton village green’s conker trees were ripe.  A competition was organised with a prize for the winner, and a competitor with a visually-impaired relative took up a collection from those present for the Royal National Institute for the Blind.  Both of the competition and the collection have continued, with, as of the 2009 competition, over £350,000 raised.

Conker king


The World Conker Championships is held annually on the second Sunday in October.  What was originally a local event has now outgrown the village green, its traditional venue, and the move to New Lodge Fields (between Ashton and Polebrook) accommodates crowds of over 5000, alongside stalls, sideshows and refreshments tents.  The event is open for anyone to enter (with a £6 fee), though limited to 256 in the men’s section and 64 in the women’s, and is a straight knockout tournament.

Squirrels going nuts

Ashton Conker Club are the hosts and proprietors of the World Championships.  It is they who collect, drill and string the conkers, who officiate the matches, and who dictate the tournament rules.  Due to the nature of the sport, where advantages can be gained through seemingly minor actions, the rules are necessarily strict.

Players’ Rules of Engagement for the Noble Game of Conkers at the Ashton Conker Club World Conker Championships:

i.  All Conkers and Laces are supplied by Ashton Conker Club.  Laces must not be knotted further or tampered with.  Each player is given a new conker and lace at the start of each game. Players may not re-use conkers from earlier games.
ii.  The game will commence with a toss of a coin, the winner of the toss may elect to strike or receive.
iii.  A distance of no less than 8 inches or 20cm of lace must be between knuckle and nut.
iv.  Each player then takes three alternate strikes at the opponent’s conker.
v.  Each attempted strike must be clearly aimed at the nut, no deliberate miss hits.
vi.  The game will be decided once one of the conkers is smashed.
vii.  A small piece of nut or skin remaining shall be judged out, it must be enough to mount an attack.
viii.  If both nuts smash at the same time then the match shall be replayed.
ix.  Any nut being knocked from the lace but not smashing may be re threaded and the game continued.
x.  A player causing a knotting of the laces (a snag) will be noted, three snags will lead to disqualification.
xi.  If a game lasts for more than five minutes then play will halt and the ‘5 minute rule’ will come into effect. Each player will be allowed up to nine further strikes at their opponents nut, again alternating three strikes each. If neither conker has been smashed at the end of the nine strikes then the player who strikes the nut the most times during this period will be judged the winner.

Bowl of conkers


Since its inception, the World Conker Championship has twice been won by foreigners: in 1976 by a Mexican, Robert Ramirez; and in 1998 by a German, Helmut Kern.

The game of conkers is decentralised and has no standardised rules.  Due the requirements of the championship format, the Ashton Conker Club have instituted their own, but in non-event contexts many differences will emerge.  For example:

  •  Strikes may be alternate (one at a time) or continue until a miss.
  •  A dropped conker, or one which comes off its string, may be trampled.
  •  Scoring system: a winning conker may assimilate the previous score of the losing conker.  In this scheme, a new conker has no value – it is a noner – yet by breaking another noner it becomes a one-er.  If it beats a one-er it becomes a two-er (one for the victory, one for the score of the opposing conker) and so on.  In some parts of Scotland, the scoring system uses the terms bully-one, bully-two etc.

Nettle Eating



The Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica), is a herbaceous perennial flowering plant, native and widespread in Europe, Asia, northern Africa, and North America.  It also hurts like crazy.  Covered in thousands of microscopic hypodermic needles, a cocktail of chemicals pour over and burn the skin when the tips are disturbed.  Little more than an annoyance to most, nettles have also been eaten since antiquity, usually cooked like spinach or in soups, and are unusually nutritious.

The sport of competitive nettle eating is a modern creation. In 1986, two neighbouring farmers were having a drink in the Bottle Inn, in Marshwood, Dorset.  Both had infestations of the weed and were arguing whose nettles were longest.  The initial ‘mine is bigger than yours’ local competition this provoked lasted three years, until one competitor, Alex Williams, declared that he would eat whichever nettle beat his 15’6 monstrosity.  When this duly happened, Williams gamely ingested, and continued to do so whenever he lost the competition until 1997.

At that time, new owner Shane Pym took over the Bottle Inn and instituted a summer beer festival, at which Williams took on all-comers at nettle-eating.  From there, it was only a small step to the fully-fledged world championship which exists today.



The World Stinging Nettle Eating Championship, to give its full title, is held annually in mid-June, usually just before the summer solstice, in the beer garden and car park of the Bottle Inn.  From small beginnings it has gained significant notoriety, attracting competitors from around the world as well as crowds of upto a thousand.


Due to the potential for skulduggery by competitors, nettles for the championship are all grown by local landowner Richard Hooper, who also acts as competition judge.  The nettles are distributed in two foot portions, and the cumulative length calculated by measuring the combined stalks that have successfully been cleared of leaves.

The rules are strict, with disqualification automatic for spitting leaves out, vomiting, hiding them, or leaving the competition table for the toilet – which, as nettles are a virulent laxative, is quite a limitation.  The competitors eat for an hour (or as much of an hour as they can stomach), before the stalks are counted and the King of the Stingers declared.



Critical to the championship’s outcome (according to the Daily Telegraph) is the quality and character of each season’s nettles.  Much is determined by the weather with lush, moist plants considered more palatable than the drier variety.  Nearly all the big scores have been achieved after wet conditions.

All Time King of the Stingers: Simon Sleigh of Hawkchurch – 76ft
All Time Queen of the Stingers: Mel Lang of West Bay – 48ft


Important Questions!

One of the advantages of living in such an exciting, joined-up world community is that find ng out what everyone else is doing/thinking/saying is pretty easy.  For example, type 'what is' into Google and allow it to suggest a completed questions, and you instantly discover what is most commonly on other people's lips/keyboards.

So here are a selection.  I've put the actual question in bold, the rest is what Google suggests.  Welcome to a world of important questions demanding to be answered.  It's comfortingly peculiar:

Why doesn't glue stick to the inside of the bottle?
Which is the only king in a modern standard pack of cards that doesn't have a moustache?
What are these strawberries doing on my nipples I need them for the fruit salad?
Why can’t I own a Canadian?
Why is there a dead Pakistani on my couch?
Why won't my parakeet eat my diarrhoea?
Who isn't your sister and isn't your brother but is still a child of your mother and father?
Why should you never weigh a hot object?
Will your grandchildren be Jewish?
How could you separate tellurium dioxide from silicon dioxide?
What do snails eat?
Why do Indians smell?
Where is Chuck Norris?
What won't Meatloaf do for love?
Who moved my cheese?

I used to presume that the funny guys at Google put these suggestions in as a joke, but now I'm not so sure.  I think life is weird enough to engender these kind of results.

Tar Barrel Running

Barrel flames


Burning tar barrels are known to have been run through the streets of Ottery St Mary since 1688, and the tradition almost certainly dates to the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 – the event is held on Guy Fawkes Night – whilst possibly being a remnant of other more ancient midwinter fire festivals.
While the West Country has a history of torchlight processions and burning barrels, it is only in Ottery that such a tradition has endured.  Carrying fire through streets or around properties has been used as a method of driving out evils spirits since the pre-Christian era of the region, and it is therefore likely that at least some of the event’s heritage is pagan or neo-pagan.


Earlier in the year, oak barrels are selected and their inside surfaces coated with coal tar.  On the night of November 5th, straw and paper are inserted to get the tar lit, and once it is burning, it will not stop.

Barrel mits

Carrying a barrel is considered a tremendous privilege, and only those born in Ottery, or long-term residents there, may do so.  On a schedule between 4pm and midnight, each barrel is lit outside one of the village’s pubs (or their former sites in several cases) and carried on the shoulders with only sacking mits for protection.  Children’s and women’s barrels precede the men’s, which are the largest and longest burning.  The barrellers are completely surrounded by heaving crowds, and run at speed straight through the throng before handing on the barrel, with multiple family members often involved.  Finally, the barrels’ remains are thrown on the town bonfire.


Although (of course) not native to Ottery, the accompanying bonfire is a key aspect of Tar Barrels, providing a focal point, backdrop and sense of anticipation to the event.


Material for the bonfire begins to be collected three weeks before Guy Fawkes Night, and brought to its regular site on St Saviour’s Meadow, on the flood plain of the River Otter.  Many villagers contribute to the stack, which eventually reaches a height of 35 feet, with a girth of over 50.  A Guy is set atop the bonfire, provided at present (and since 1958) by the Young family.  The bonfire burns throughout the evening.

fed, up to the back teeth

I have had a week of being very impressed with our friends.

At one and a half days' notice, Maria and I headed out to California last Tuesday – it cost us $10 each, the legacy of Star Alliance membership on the behalf of my wife.  Sometimes trans-Atlantic living has nice side-effects.

We stayed within sight of the HOLLYWOOD sign (with Dyball), within sight of a woman walking her pet pig (with cousin Janet's family in Oceanside), and within sight of the Pacific Ocean in the most expensive suburb of America (with Ariel & Chris in La Jolla).

We got into San Diego Zoo for free, renewed treasured old friendships, and got given presents by people we'd never met before.

We met an author and a rock star and a tiger, watched hummingbirds at breakfast-time, never had to so much as take a taxi for all the offers of lifts, and were fed an absolutely ridiculous amount of fantastic food.

In/after all this, the temptation for me is to go, 'Thank you God for looking after us!', and I think that is fine.  But I am of the opinion that the more prescient prayer is something more like, 'Thank you God for making humans like these and bumping us into them.'

Even though they are our friends/family, they didn't have to act like that; they didn't have to drop everything they were doing so as to take us out for milkshakes on the pier.  They chose to (and not grudgingly, either), and that is what impresses me.

Lord’s Prayer Paraphrase

Had a go at this yesterday – doesn't seem quite right yet but am still quite pleased:

Our holy and heavenly Father
Come and rule, in us and around us,
So that Your desires for the world come to life.
And keep us alive, with food and with forgiveness,
Helping us to pass on those gifts.
Protect us from temptation,
Support us when we walk in darkness,
And lead us to Yourself;
Forever glorious, majestic and strong.
And that's the truth.

One Hymn to the Tune of Another

As I mentioned a few months back, I've been working on fitting familiar, singable tunes to unsingable (but lyrically good) hymns.  Here are a few that won't land me with copyright issues!

So, click to listen, right-click to download.  They are AIF files, so quite big …

Abide With Me

God Moves In A Mysterious Way

The Marvellous Mr Chesterton

[Quotations from the great GK, helpfully arranged into categories to make it easier.]


If I had only one sermon to preach it would be a sermon against pride.

It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.

The Bible tells us to love our neighbours, and also to love our enemies; probably because generally they are the same people.

To love means loving the unlovable. To forgive means pardoning the unpardonable. Faith means believing the unbelievable. Hope means hoping when everything seems hopeless.


Do not free a camel of the burden of his hump; you may be freeing him from being a camel. 

An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.

I've searched all the parks in all the cities and found no statues of committees.

Love means to love that which is unlovable; or it is no virtue at all.

No man who worships education has got the best out of education… Without a gentle contempt for education no man's education is complete.

There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.

Being Human

The trouble with always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.

The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.

To be clever enough to get all that money, one must be stupid enough to want it.

It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down. Why do we laugh? Because it is a gravely religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.

Man is an exception, whatever else he is. If he is not the image of God, then he is a disease of the dust. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head.

Being Silly

Lying in bed would be an altogether perfect and supreme experience if only one had a coloured pencil long enough to draw on the ceiling.

Man does not live by soap alone; and hygiene, or even health, is not much good unless you can take a healthy view of it or, better still, feel a healthy indifference to it.

Once I planned to write a book of poems entirely about the things in my pocket. But I found it would be too long; and the age of the great epics is past.

The poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.

Gk chesterton cartoon

The First Armistice Day

The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect.

tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume, and
stopped dead, and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their
loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.

took off his hat, and with a nervous hesitancy the rest of the men
bowed their heads also. Here and there an old soldier could be detected
slipping unconsciously into the posture of 'attention'. An elderly
woman, not far away, wiped her eyes, and the man beside her looked
white and stern.

Everyone stood very still … The hush deepened. It
had spread over the whole city and become so pronounced as to impress
one with a sense of audibility. It was a silence which was almost pain

And the spirit of memory brooded over it all.

As reported in the Manchester Guardian, 12th November 1919.