ONE of my delightful nine-year-old granddaughters comes visiting after school on a Wednesday, and is always looking for new things to try.

If I ask her what she wants to do before tea, she always fixes me with those big blue eyes, smiles and beams: “Options?”

It’s then up to me to come up with some entertaining diversion to keep her occupied until food is on the table.

Activities so far this year have included taking the dog for a swim-cum-wash in the river, racing round the block on bikes and playing endless games of hangman.

But last week Wednesday concluded with a beautiful autumn evening, and I asked her if she had ever been conkering. I was dumbfounded when she declared she hadn’t, and wasn’t entirely sure what the activity entailed.

When I was her age, there wasn’t a horse chestnut tree within five miles of our house which hadn’t been staked out for months by gangs of small boys, all waiting for the moment when the spiky carapaces were ready to give up their nutty bounty, and provide hours of playground fun.

Then the tree would be surrounded by the hopeful hordes, raking through the grass under the trees for fortuitous windfalls, or throwing sticks up the tree to encourage it to send down a shower of conkers ready to be prised from their silken nests inside that armoured hulk.

Most gangs had a least one boy – girls were never allowed on conkering quests – who had not ascended too many steps of the evolutionary ladder, and maintained close links with the apes.

These simian souls could shinny up the most formidable trees like rats up drainpipes and would inch out along the thinnest branches to shake down precious fruits to their pals below.

A lot of the conker trees were on fiercely guarded private land, and conker hunters always had at least two boys posted as look-outs, to warn of any approaching adults. There were some prodigious conker trees in the grounds of the local mental hospital, but few were brave enough to go in after them, as their were rumours – probably started by the hospital groundsmen – that a deranged killer nicknamed The Man in Long Underpants was at large in the grounds, just looking for small boys to drag back to his den and consume at his leisure.

For that reason, conkers were removed from the site in carrier bags, still in their green jackets, to be prised open in someone’s back garden when safely back at home.

There would be cries of triumph as a fruit the size of an armoured tortoise would yield a prince of a conker and equally impassioned howls of dismay if coconut sized trophy contained only the dreaded waterbelly – a conker with a liquid centre – or a couple of undeveloped albino freaks.

Few experiences matched the day when an unpromising shrivelled brown case was cracked open to reveal a glittering chestnut paragon.

Then came the division of spoils, followed by the ceremonial making the hole in the conkers through which the string – or more usually boot laces – had to be threaded.

Purloined hat-pins, meat skewers, knitting needles and nails were all deployed to make the holes, and arcane rules deployed to actually play the game. Conkers were graded on how many other conkers they had shattered, but if two eighters came into opposition, the victor became a 16-er, and so it went on.

There were stories of malpractice, involving soaking conkers in vinegar and baking them in the oven to toughen them up, but cheats were soon winkled out, given away by the tell-tale chip shop smell about their person.

But how times have changed, for when I took Elise on our conkering expedition, I expected the roadside trees that were to be our first port of call to have been stripped bare. Far from it – the ground was littered with shells and the branches fairly groaning under the weight of conkers adorning their limbs like baubles on a Christmas tree.

I was able to lift her up and let her pick the spiky balls from the tree, and she was delighted when I threw a stick aloft to bring down a rich harvest of conkers like the heads of so many medieval maces

She was even more delighted when a stick, which had been lodged in the tree after my earlier failed attempt to dislodge fruit, came down unexpectedly and hit me on the head.