By Tim Porteus

THE great horse chestnut tree, it seems, will no longer be with us in 15 years.

A tiny moth which lays its eggs in the leaves of the tree is the problem. The leaves of infected trees can brown and wither in early summer, and the effect of the disease makes the tree susceptible to something called bleeding canker. The tree’s bark cracks open and the tree will gradually bleed and die.

Who amongst us has no memories of playing conkers when we were wee, or climbing the great tree, or simply walking under its canopy of hand-shaped leaves in awe? In autumn, the horse chestnut can steal the show as its leaves turn red, and in spring the flowers are an early decoration of a wood or riverbank where they have been planted.

There is not much folklore that I know of surrounding the horse chestnut, maybe because the tree was introduced around 400 years ago. But that makes it a witness to much of our later history and it is ingrained in our memories and childhood. I suspect that the horse chestnut is the tree most easily recognised by people, and it is the tree which often has a powerful connection with children.

I know that with all the terrible things happening in the world that the loss of a type of tree may seem relatively unimportant, but when I realised that such a key part of my childhood memory was soon to be no more I felt incredibly sad. It’s not just memory either, it’s their presence today. It feels like we are to lose many old friends, some nearly 300 years old.

And so I am collecting my memories of this remarkable tree while they are still with us. And I realised as I did so that the horse chestnut played an important part in my early self-esteem. Let me explain.

I was not a sporty type at school. I enjoyed running about and exploring the outdoors but when it came to organised sport I did my best but never seemed to have the ability and aptitude to be cool at it.

I used to dread that moment when the football team was picked and the PE teacher would chose two boys who were good at football to choose their teams. It was always humiliating for me as the ranks of classmates slowly depleted, and usually I was last to be chosen, or as near as.

In fact, often I wasn’t chosen, I was kind of just added at the end as the runt of the team. The great bit about that was there was little in the way of expectation, so if I kicked the ball in the right direction there was a sense of achievement.

Then one autumn, things changed. I remember it vividly. You see, we used to play conkers in the leaf-lined pavement of East Loan at home time, after we’d come out of the back door of what is now Prestonpans Infant School.

I had a prized conker. I hadn’t cheated in any way, it was just a solid, large conker I’d found on the ground while searching with friends. My memory fails to record the exact location of its discovery, but I can clearly see the conker in my mind’s eye.

There, under the canopy of trees draping over the high walls in East Loan, I was challenged by other boys who also had prized conkers. One by one, I smashed their conkers as witnesses began to build around me.

I remember one lad almost falling over with the power he put into his swiping attack on my conker, but to no avail. I sent him home holding a string with a knot containing the remains of his once-proud conker.

After 10 victories, I decided to head for home. There were still challengers, but I put my champion safely in my pocket.

I still remember the sense of uplift and pride when I got home. I placed the conker on the shelf in my bedroom. I was not going to fight him again. He had earned his retirement, and he had won me my place in sporting legend at the school. Yes, that’s exactly how it felt at the time.

Indeed, when I returned the next day people asked to see the conker. I had to tell them that I wouldn’t swap or sell him and that he was now retired, just as a soldier does after successive tours of duty. Nobody would now ever defeat him.

Perhaps it was just a coincidence, but the following week when the PE teacher as usual picked his two favourite lads to chose their football teams, I was picked before many boys who were usually seen as better players than me. It was the gift of the horse chestnut for me: enhanced self-esteem and status!

And so now that a terminal diagnosis has been given to this wonderful tree, I am determined to appreciate their presence for as long as they survive. A solid, beautiful example lives in my street. So far, it seems healthy, but I know now that its time is very limited. My children have been collecting conkers from under it for some weeks now, and already conker necklaces and a conker family decorate our home.

I have chosen my conker for the family competition later this week. Trips to the woods to find more are planned. New memories of a soon-to-vanish tree will be woven and then passed on I hope.

I suppose the lesson here is that nothing really lasts forever, but that shouldn’t stop us enjoying what we have in the present. In fact, it should bring into sharp focus the things we should cherish in the present.

But for me, my connection with the horse chestnut will be that exhilarating walk home along Cemetery and Nethershot Road, with the symbol of my new-found sporting prowess safely in my pocket. That is reason enough for me to feel a deep sense of sadness at their eventual passing from our landscape.