Retro: Conkering heroes

John Leayton of Oundle (left) just before he broke his conker, meaning Sid Walden (right) was crowned World Conker Champion at the second annual championship held in Ashton, Northamptonshire, in October 1966

John Leayton of Oundle (left) just before he broke his conker, meaning Sid Walden (right) was crowned World Conker Champion at the second annual championship held in Ashton, Northamptonshire, in October 1966

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Competitors from across the globe will descend on Northamptonshire this weekend as the county again hosts the World Conker Championships.

The annual event, which began in 1965, takes place at the Shuckburgh Arms in Southwick near Oundle on Sunday, October 12, from 10.30am.

Mexican Jorge Ramires (pictured with wife Rosabel) became the first international winner of the World Conker Championships, October 1976

Mexican Jorge Ramires (pictured with wife Rosabel) became the first international winner of the World Conker Championships, October 1976

The event used to be held in the nearby village of Ashton, and is still organised by the Ashton Conker Club. It was moved to Southwick last year after outgrowing its original home.

Now, hundreds of people – many clad in fancy dress – and media from around the globe turn up in the peaceful corner of the county to see who will be the all-conkering champion.

It is all a far cry from the event’s relatively humble beginnings almost 50 years ago.

The inaugural tournament in October 1965 saw Ron Marsh of Ashton emerge triumphant from a field of 24 competitors, cheered on by 30 or so spectators.

Winner of the 1997 World Conker Championships Paul Vjestica crowned by King Conker Vic Owen

Winner of the 1997 World Conker Championships Paul Vjestica crowned by King Conker Vic Owen

At the time the Evening Telegraph reported: “In a closely fought final he defeated the newly elected president of the Ashton Conker Club, and his own next-door neighbour, Sid Walden.

“Although Mr Marsh won the title, he didn’t see much of the prize – a gallon of beer – which was consumed quickly by the defeated competitors.”

Just a year later the championships attracted 64 entries, with the previous year’s runner-up Sid Walden going one better by winning.

In 1976, the World Championship had its first non-British winner, with Mexican Jorge Ramirez joining the list of home-grown champions.

But it was something of a surprise win in front of a crowd of almost 2,000 people, as the 30-year-old, who was working at a Peterborough engineering firm, said he had never seen a conker before.

He added: “We don’t have them in Mexico. My friend told me about the competition and I thought I would like to enter. I was very surprised to win.”

The first tournaments specifically forbade women or children from taking part, and it was not until the late 1980s that junior and women’s championships were also introduced.

In 1988, Sheila Doubleday was the first woman to be crowned champion, while Austrian Selma Becker became the first overseas winner of the women’s tournament in 2000.

Entries for this year’s main competition have closed, with 184 people taking part. However, juniors can still enter simply by turning up on the day.

The champions of the 2013 competition, Simon Cullum from Kettering and Sophie Knox from Harrogate in North Yorkshire, will both be defending their titles.

This year’s special guest is Katherine Jakeways, creator of the North by Northamptonshire, comedy series on Radio 4, while Radio 5 live presenter Mike Sewell will oversee proceedings.

The championships will also commemorate the outbreak of the First World War, with an armoured vehicle on display.

Visitors and competitors will also be able to learn how the humble conker played an important role during the war.

Each year the championships raise money to support a variety of charities working alongside blind and visually impaired people, with more collected as the event goes from strength to strength. Since it began more than £400,000 has been raised for good causes.

In 1966, Mr J Horne, secretary of Ashton Conker Club and one of the founders of the championships, said: “This is one tradition which we hope will be carried forward through the ages.”

The hundreds of people who are expected to gather this Sunday in a small Northamptonshire village are testament to the fact that his hope has become a reality.