Clinton in Harrogate

WOULD Bill Clinton pop in to Bettys? Would he stop off at Marks and Spencer? Would he “meet the people”?

These were just some of the questions we asked last week, not for one moment expecting the former president to take time out in Harrogate.

So when my mobile phone rang to tell me Bill was actually walking the streets, I could have kissed it!

On a sniff of a tip-off, I parked quickly outside the Old Bell Tavern where he was rumoured to have eaten lunch. And the rumour, uncommonly, was true.

At about 11.45am, seven serious looking security agents had banged on the door of the pub, flashed their warrant cards, and requested lunch for the former president of the USA.

For managers Jamie Allen and Gina Andrew it was something straight out of a movie.

“At first we though it was a raid,” said Jamie.

“But we let them in and after they’d searched the building in walked Mr Clinton himself. He came to the bar and introduced himself, and then there was the dilemma of what to drink.

“So I gave him and his aide a taste of a couple of real ales we have here, but he decided on a diet Coke.

“He did ask for a snakebite after one of his security men did, but we kindly refused him. It’s illegal to serve it here in the UK you see.”

With the pub chef arriving late it was up to Gina to serve the steak and ale pie, devoured hungrily by the famous guest.

Then he moved on to The Ginnel, with me in hot pursuit. A tall, security agent, who had started to recognise me by now, winked and let me through.

My prey had gone to ground in the town’s Antiques Centre.

Catching my breath I made the obligatory introductions to the Californian suntans in suits, looking decidedly on the chilly side as they waited for Mr Clinton to resurface from his spot of shopping.

“Caught you off guard did we,” said one with a perfect American smile.

We waited, me, the photographer, the men (and women) in black, and a growing crowd of onlookers who had heard who was in town and rushed down, disposable camera clutched in hand, to catch the moment on film.

And we waited some more, but this former president was in no hurry to meet his audience – he was shopping. His security team later admitted they had no control over Mr Clinton’s movements. Where he went, they followed.

But for owner Pauline Stephenson every moment he was in her store was a dream come true.

“It was a complete surprise when he and his security turned up, “ she said.

“He was very relaxed and certainly took his time looking in all the cabinets. He brought some collectibles, including some jewellery and silver items.

“I hadn’t been there when he’d first arrived, but I’d heard something was going on so dashed back. We have had VIP visitors before, but never a president.”

Having finished hitting the plastic, Bill finally emerged to cheers and a thankful crowd, who had begun to freeze in the northerly winds.

After being handed a tin of Farrah’s Toffee by a sales assistant from the Montpellier Parade shop, he slowly made his way back down the hill, followed by the crowds taking it in turns to shake the hand of greatness.

And then it was my turn. Seizing the opportunity, I outstretched my hand and begun an on the hoof exclusive interview.

Keeping hold of my hand the whole time, with the longest handshake of my career to date, I asked him what he thought of Harrogate.

“It’s a very beautiful town,” he said.

“Very impressive, and I have to say full of wonderful friendly people. It’s been exciting to be able to come here and visit for what is my first time here.”

When I asked him why he had chosen to stop off at the antiques centre his reply was simple.

“I’d had a great lunch and decided to take the opportunity to look around. I have to say, the idea of having all those different antique dealers under one roof is excellent.

“There was so much to look at, and I have to confess, I did some shopping – so did a few others in my party.”

He commented on the weather asking if it was normal to be so cold at this time of year, but before I had time to ask him how he was enjoying his time as a free-lance global statesmen, another hand had been accepted and shaken, and moments later he was unceremoniously bungled into a four-wheel drive and whisked away.

Only minutes later he was attracting the crowds in a more rural setting – playing a sedate six holes of golf at Rudding Park.

Although no Tiger Woods, the president playing off 12 impressed his audience, which included bride, groom and guests who shouted “Who’s the man” with great delight across the fairway. To their disbelief he came over, kissed the bride, congratulated the groom and posed for photos.

For hotel manager Peter Bank the whole experience was a little overwhelming.

“There were buggies shooting off all over the place full of his security men, men with sniffer dogs, it was all very exciting. One moment I was carrying bags – the next I was caddying for a former president, very surreal. I have to say he is a good player, and a very charming man.”

But for this reporter at least, I had come away with a story, for those in the crowds an unbelievable tale to tell friends and family for years to come. The stuff legends are made of.