A Tale of Two Winters

It was February (1970?). About eight of us had cheap tickets to see Johnny Winter and support band Keef Hartley at the Royal Albert Hall.1

When the doors opened we were ushered up the steps around the edge of the round building. One flight, two flights, three flights of stairs we climbed. Then still more stairs. Up and up we went until eventually we came through a door onto a wide balcony just under the huge domed roof. There was a sturdy metal railing at the edge of the balcony through which we could look out into the vast space of the concert hall. It was like stepping onto the ledge of a skyscraper and looking out over the city below.

There were no seats up here, just a stone floor. It was already fairly crowded by the time we arrived but we managed to squeeze in by the railings where we could see the stage. Behind us, sitting against the back wall, a line of slightly dodgy-looking characters had various items on display. Joss sticks, pretty trinkets, perhaps some reefers and some little packets of foil with unspecified contents. There was one of these traders every few feet around the balcony. They made me rather nervous at first but they all seemed pretty laid back and harmless. The worst that happened was that someone accidentally dropped their joint on Howard’s Parka jacket. By the time he’d noticed there was a smouldering hole in his coat.

I don’t remember much about the concert itself. From our vantage point up in the gods we were too far away to see much more than Johnny Winter’s long, straight, albino-white hair shining brilliantly in the spotlights. I’d expected the sound to echo around us as it bounced off the walls and the roof but, actually, the acoustics were pretty good. I think we all enjoyed the bands and felt we’d got more than our money’s worth.

It had been a sell-out gig. The bands had come on stage quite late (even for a rock concert) and it was taking some time for the crowds to leave. By the time we pulled on our coats and spilled out into the fresh air it was well past eleven o’clock and none of us was sure what time the last trains would leave from Charing Cross to take us home. There was some debate about the quickest way to the station and we decided to walk across Hyde Park rather than risk having to wait for a tube train. This was not very sensible, but it led to the story I am about to tell.

As we walked across the park away from the road it became quite dark. Apart from the street lights in the distance there were no visible landmarks. Soon we came to a small wood. As we walked through the trees the night seemed to close in around us. It would have been easy to get disoriented and we hesitated for a moment before pressing on. Then, to our relief, the trees stopped and we found ourselves beside the Serpentine. Tied up at the edge of the lake we could see a line of rowing boats and a path leading to a wooden boat house.

We paused to consider whether to skirt the lake to the left or the right. Or, perhaps we could take one of the boats and row across the lake. “Let’s go for a swim” said one of the girls. She wasn’t proposing to swim across the lake. “It’ll be fun” she continued. Even though it was February and only half an hour before midnight a couple of the lads agreed. Like Just William, they weren’t going to be outdone by a girl.

I hadn’t met those members of our group until that day and had no idea if they would actually go through with this crazy plan. So I just watched as one very slim girl and two trim lads stripped down to their underwear and put a foot in the lake to test the water. That was enough for one of the boys; the others waded out up to their knees. Then, quite suddenly, the girl launched herself into the water, swam out for a few strokes, turned and swam back to the shore. The lad standing in the water muttered something about it being too cold for him and also returned to dry land.

Someone asked the swimmer how she was going to get dry. “Oh, I’ll just run around a bit. I’ll soon dry”, she said nonchalantly and trotted off among the trees. Just then a man came towards us walking along the side of the lake from the direction of the boathouse. Turning to us he asked if we had seen a boat. “Why, have you lost one?” one of the lads asked with a smile. “Well, yes, actually” said the boatman. He was about to continue when he spotted a young girl running through the trees in her underwear and flapping her arms like a demented fairy.

There was silence for a moment. Then, with great presence of mind, one of our lads said, “You wouldn’t have a towel or something, would you?”. The shock on the boatman’s face evaporated as he realised we weren’t all out of our minds. “Yes. Yes, of course” he replied and took our shivering fairy down to the boathouse. We thought he would let her get dry and dressed while he waited with us outside, but when he didn’t reappear we went to check that everything was all right. The boatman opened the door and invited us all in. Our lass was wrapped in a blanket, drinking a steaming hot mug of cocoa and obviously feeling much better.

The boatman would have been happy for us to stay, have some cocoa and chat, but we had trains to catch. He directed us out of the park and down to the railway station. It was nearly midnight now, but our trains were still running and we all went home feeling we’d had a thoroughly enjoyable and very memorable night.

Footnote: My memory is clear but, according to Google, Johnny Winter played the Albert Hall in April 1971 as support for Santana (who I’ve never seen) and Keef Hartley never performed at the Albert Hall at all. Back to post

By stoneyfish

Humanist and retired software engineer with a love of music.

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