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Still happy after 25 years

The 25th annual Day of Dance in the north Oxfordshire village of Adderbury takes place on Saturday, 29 April, 2000. To mark the occasion, we publish a slightly-amended version of an article that first appeared in 1997, in Banbury Fare magazine.

How happy's that man
That's free from all care
Who loves to make merry
Who loves to make merry
'oer a drap of good beer

- sung by the morris men of Adderbury, while dancing The Happy Man

In a snug corner of The Bell, the fool recalls past revels, and smiles. There is a hint of glee about him that suggests imminent mischief.

Being the fool gives Philip Le Mare a certain standing in the rather fine village of Adderbury, but it's questionable whether he'll be standing very certainly after lunchtime on the Day of Dance.

On that day, the two resident morris sides perambulate around the many village pubs. One of them closed many years ago, but they still dance there, as if unable to accept the loss.

Philip is an official appendage of the Adderbury Morris Men. There's a picture of him in the bar at The Bell, waving a feather duster and sporting a large politician's rosette. Indeed, he did once have political career, when he represented the team on the parish council, but that was before he was appointed to the altogether more glorious position of fool.

Mr Le Mare is supposed to be explaining all that happens on the big day, so his opening remarks in our interview are not promising. "The day of dance just happens around me," he says. "I'm always there, but I'm not really aware of what goes on."

It turns out this is not entirely true. As the day draws on, Philip is not "there" at all: he is still at the previous pub. Playing Old Hooky, as it were.

"Last year I was very bad," he says, with his characteristic air of bewildered charm. "I managed to keep up until lunchtime, and after that I just lagged behind."

This was partly through chatting with fellow-villagers, who come out in force on the day - there's always a boot sale on the green to capitalise on the crowds. But it would be churlish to deny the part played by Hook Norton's finest brew.

"In the old days we all used to get a bit wobbly," he adds, as if to suggest that nowadays, he's the only one who maintains this particular tradition. Most of the men drink all right, but the belief is that the dancing keeps them sober. All the pubs do well on the Day of Dance.

The beer is an important part of the morris, as are the music and singing it induces. One year a Welsh choir was performing in the church in the evening, and the session in The Bell afterwards was memorable, even for Philip.

There's also a party in the Institute, open to all for a small fee.

It's a spirited occasion, the Day of Dance; a big-hearted celebration of jovial Englishness (except, possibly, in the case of the Welsh choir).

There's another aspect of Englishness, though, that Philip regrets. "It's an English tradition to dismiss our folk dances, unlike in other countries, where their own tradition is very important. It's not important here. I don't even think people in Adderbury appreciate what they have."

And then he makes a grand statement. "Adderbury is world famous," he says, "and it's only because of the morris."

There's some truth in this. In America, in Australia and even in Saudi Arabia, morris dancers have announced to the crowds that the next dance would be Lads-a-Bunchum, or whatever, "from the village of Adderbury, in England."

The familiar hankie-waving and stick-bashing custom was "discovered" in Oxfordshire and the surrounding area at the turn of the century, by which time it had already died out in all but a handful of villages. But in many places the dances were still remembered, and various collectors were able to record them - chief among them one Cecil Sharp.

It's a happy quirk of the Adderbury tradition that it was largely recorded not by Mr Sharp, but by a woman named Blunt (at the mention of this, Philip explodes with delight: in nearly 30 years of dancing, the juxtaposition of names has never occurred him).

Janet Blunt was the Lady of one of Adderbury's several manors, and she chronicled much of the village's wealth of old customs. The Day of Dance always takes place on the Saturday nearest to her birthday, April 26th; on the day, both village sides perform outside her home in Manor Road.

In the 19th century, many dances and tunes were common to several villages, but each village team performed them in its own distinct style. One may often see dances from Bucknell, Brackley and also Kirtlington - where the morris plays a large part in the revived Lamb Ale. The Adderbury collection, though, is one of the richest to survive, and certainly one of the most widely-performed around the world.

The village can legitimately claim to have made a small but significant contribution to British culture, but if you ask Philip, it's not given due recognition. He's thinking of complaining to the district council.

The morris, of course, attracts a certain amount of mockery. Donning bells and cavorting in the street is undeniably an odd thing to do, but the faint absurdity is part of its anarchic appeal; its survival in today's high-tech world is a thing of fascination.

In fact, the Adderbury material was very nearly lost. Miss Blunt's unpublished papers were being destroyed after her death, but her maid hastily pulled them from the fire.

It was Sharp, though, who brought fame to dances from Adderbury. He noted five of them in 1919 from former team leader "Binx" Walton, who was 80 years old and almost blind, but still able to dance; within months, Binx was dead.

For several decades there was no morris team based in the village, but the memory lingered. When a carillon was installed in the church more than a century ago, one of the tunes chosen to be rung out was Bluebells of Scotland, from the morris. It's surely no co-incidence there were Waltons in the belltower.

The present dance teams emerged in the mid 1970s, resuming a custom known to have existed in the early years of the 19th century, and which certainly dates back further. Now the morris has become once more a part of the fabric of this most-lovely village, and the Day of Dance is a tradition in its own right.

The stepping is a bit rough at the edges and the singing at the start of the stick dances would make old Binx Walton cringe, but it's good-natured, blokeish fun, and the most effective traffic-calming measure the village has yet devised.

Mr Le Mare will surely enjoy it, if the past is a guide. At tea time one year, a visiting child asked, "Does Uncle Philip always sleep under the table?"

Adderbury Day of Dance takes place on Saturday, April 29. Adderbury Morris Men begin dancing at 10am outside the old Wheatsheaf pub, on the Oxford Road, which was kept for a time by the 19th century team leader, Binx Walton. Adderbury Village Morris Men traditionally begin their day's dancing at the same time outside Binx's cottage, in the lane behind The Bell in the centre of the village. Both teams aim to be at The Bell at around lunchtime. Guest sides have been invited to perform in the early evening, including Sherborne and Bourne River. E-mail queries to - we'll pass them on.