As Tower Bridge, one of London’s most iconic landmarks, celebrated its 120th birthday this June it comes as no surprise that the operators behind it have a few stories to share. Guest blogger Glen Ellis, Technical Officer at Tower Bridge talks about the day he held up Bill Clinton…
“It was a normal day back in 1997, a couple of years after I had started working at Tower Bridge, and I was showing a group of Americans around the exhibition. Looking out from the East high-level Walkway, I pointed out a restaurant below. It just so happened to be the restaurant in which Bill Clinton had been lunching with Tony Blair. I had noticed lots of extra police patrols in and around the area and had heard a rumour that they were dining there. The group were over the moon as they said that they had never been that close to the President before.
Having thought no more of this, I went about my evening, carrying out bridge lifts as usual. The Sailing Barge Gladys which was scheduled for the 22.00 lift approached the Bridge around 10 minutes early, with the tide pushing them on. I had to start the lift as is normal in these circumstances, otherwise the vessel would have had to turn around and make a new approach; often making them later than their scheduled time. Just a moment earlier a few police motorcyclists rode across the bridge, which again is not unusual, but then there seemed to be a lull in the traffic crossing the bridge and so with the vessel rapidly approaching I started the bridge lift. Within moments of closing the road gates and starting to unlock the bridge, blue flashing lights appeared on the opposite side of the bridge at the south road gates but by this point, I was committed to the bridge lift so continued to raise the bascules.
Within a few seconds, the phone rang and one of Tower Bridge’s Night Security Officers told me that Scotland Yard was on the phone! They insisted we put the bridge down and open the gates immediately as the US President, Bill Clinton, was held up on the south side. I politely explained that this was not possible and we would have to continue with the lift and allow the vessel to pass through the bridge since law states that river traffic takes priority over road traffic, and besides it would only take around another four or five minutes.
So there Bill Clinton was: stuck on the south side of the river, with his armed security guards unimpressed and angry having jumped out of the limo to protect him and now exchanging words with the lone Bridge crew member manning the gates. But even to this day, I like to think Bill enjoyed the experience as much as other tourists do!
After the lift, I made my way back to the office and explained to the former Bridge Master, Eric Sutherns (my boss), that he may have to sort out my cards in the morning and told them what had happened. However, I knew that I had the act of Parliament on my side and the following morning’s headlines would have been quite different had I not raised the bridge in time!”