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The Cornish Total Eclipse

A Personal Perspective

by Martin J. Powell

"Wow!...We can see the ring now and some stars..."

- Anonymous pilot flying over Cornwall on Eclipse Day

The first I am aware of hearing about the August 1999 solar eclipse was in early 1982, when my interest in astronomy really began to rocket. I had seen it listed among a table of solar eclipses which would be visible before the year 2000. I had also heard Patrick Moore talking on a radio chat show (with Gloria Hunniford, I think) that the next total eclipse in Britain would be visible from Cornwall on 11th August 1999. His advice to listeners at that time was to "book your hotel room early!"

During the intervening 17 years I had thought about the eclipse on and off, occasionally mentioning it to friends, but always knowing that I would be in Cornwall - somewhere - to witness that eclipse. The last time I had thought significantly about it was in June 1991, when I visited the Cornish peninsula around St Ives on a tour of the prehistoric monuments in that area. One place in particular impressed me much - Zennor Quoit - a Neolithic burial chamber located high on a moorland, and it is here that I thought I would like to be when the eclipse came to town. I envisaged myself alone, photographing a beautiful totally eclipsed sun high in the sky above the chamber. Unfortunately the weather during that week was poor; it rained heavily for the first day, and it was misty for the remainder of the week. "I hope it's not like this in 1999" I thought to myself at the time.

It was the summer of 1998, one year before the eclipse, that I booked a holiday cottage in Cornwall as a base for eclipse week. By then, the availability of cottages was sparse, and several good locations that I had selected from the brochure had already been taken. My holiday cottage would be at Port Isaac, a fishing village on the north coast of Cornwall. It was only just inside the northern limit of the total eclipse track. Totality there would only last 39 seconds, so if I wanted to make the most of the occasion I would have to travel on the day of the eclipse to a location which would give me a longer period of totality. One year ahead, this did not pose any particular problem for me. Already, my dream of being at Zennor Quoit on the Cornish peninsula had evaporated. That area was fully booked up and it was clear that traffic would be very dense in that part of Cornwall. I wanted to avoid the crowds if at all possible. 

Map showing the track of totality across Cornwall on August 11th 1999 (12 KB)Map showing the track of totality across Cornwall on August 11th 1999 (click for full-size image, 12 KB)

By about three months ahead of the eclipse I was beginning to count the days, and the publicity was also starting to increase. More and more people were now aware that the eclipse was going to happen. My attention turned to the weather, as it had done on 11th August for the last couple of years. The previous 11th August had been a wonderfully clear day (over Cardiff, at least) and I recall commenting to a colleague that I hoped it would be like this in a year's time. July 11th, one month ahead of the eclipse, was also a clear day.

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Ten days ahead, the Met Office issued its first forecast for eclipse day. It was not good news. The day would start out sunny but cloud would increase during the morning - particularly inland - with the possibility of showers breaking out by the afternoon. For the next four days I visited the Met Office's web site on the internet for their latest forecast. It remained much the same, the only variables being the wind direction and the likely percentage of cloud cover in any given location. By the time I left for Port Isaac - early on Saturday 7th - I was pretty much expecting a cloudy sky on eclipse day. The most I could realistically expect to witness was a daytime darkness, much as millions had witnessed during the last British total eclipse in June 1927.

Joining me on the trip was a friend who I had known for many years, and who wanted to witness the eclipse for himself.  We had spoken about the eclipse many times over the years.

After a day resting on the Sunday, my priority was to find a good site from which to view the eclipse. Having studied the Ordnance Survey map of the area, and wanting to be relatively near an ancient site, I had pre-selected two possible viewing sites. One was at St Breock Down, south of Wadebridge, where there were two Bronze Age standing stones, and the other was at King Arthur's Down on the western edge of Bodmin Moor, where there were a few stone circles. I visited both of these sites in the two days before the eclipse, to ensure that I was familiar with the roads, and I knew that I would have to decide between the two at some point.

Looking across the harbour of Port Isaac (29 KB)Looking across the harbour of Port Isaac (click for full-size image, 29 KB)

Both sites had their advantages and disadvantages. St Breock Down was a good high spot with views to the south, and I had estimated totality there to last 1 minute 23 seconds - a significant improvement on the 39 seconds I would have if I were to stay in Port Isaac. The disadvantage of this site was that it was to the south-west of Port Isaac, which would involve a possible risk of getting jammed up in the last minute traffic heading to the south-west overnight. Also, being a particularly high spot with a good view, many others were also likely to go to this site. The Bodmin Moor site was very open, and so large as to almost guarantee a viewing spot all of one's own. The journey from Port Isaac was shorter and the roads relatively easier to negotiate than the St Breock Down site. All very well - except that totality on this part of the moor would only be 44 seconds, a mere 5 seconds longer than if I stayed put in Port Isaac.

Tuesday evening came and the likelihood of seeing the eclipse from Cornwall had reduced to a mere 15%! The cloud was almost certain to arrive overland before totality occurred at 11:12 BST. The Met Office thought the best location to see it would be around the Torbay area, but even here the chances were only slightly better. The weather chart for Britain on eclipse day ('E-day' they were calling it) was ironic to say the least. The only dark and rainy clouds to be seen were over the south-west of England - directly over the track of totality! Just about everywhere else had white clouds and sunshine. Some parts of Scotland had clear skies! It was as though a traditional summer day in Britain had been turned on its head. If God had planned this, he must have had a sinister streak.

Even at midnight on the Wednesday - the morning of the eclipse - I had still not decided which location I would be heading for when daylight came. However, I was beginning to favour the lengthier St Breock Down site, even at the risk of crowds being there. The weather was no longer a factor - it would be cloudy whichever site I chose.

I had three hours sleep that night. I had had to wait for the video camera batteries to charge up before I could settle down to sleep. They finished charging at 12:30 am and only then could I settle down to sleep.

I wanted to come home with some record of the event. The video camera promised the best record, but since it would be cloudy I had to think how I could best record the event without being able to see the sun itself. I concluded that the best method would be to film the landscape as the sky darkened. From St Breock, I had a mental picture of the scenes I wanted to capture: a distant mountain range, a treescape, and the nearby windmills at the wind farm. It looked promising, even though the eclipse itself would not be seen.

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I would also use my standard camera to capture the darkness at the moment of totality.

I also wanted to make a tape recording of the aircraft activity in the skies above Cornwall at the time of the eclipse. I had brought my airband scanner, programmed with the required local frequencies, and a tape recorder and cable especially for the purpose. This would provide an unusual audio record of the eclipse morning.

I awoke at 4:30 am and after breakfast I walked outside the cottage. The sky was largely clear with some high cloud. It looked promising, but I knew deep down that it wouldn't last. I was dreading the journey to the Down. Today was considered by the motoring organisations to be one of the worst days of the year for travelling. I envisaged mile-long tailbacks stretching from St Breock Down as everyone headed for that elusive high spot.  We left for the St Breock Down site at around 5:45 am.

But we made the journey in about half an hour. Much to our surprise, there was hardly a car on the road at 6 am that morning. In fact, most cars seemed to be heading in the opposite direction. I was surprised that if people were heading this way, they were evidently prepared to leave it until quite late for their journey. I watched the sun rise as we began our drive up the hill to the Down. Apart form one solitary car parked at the side of the road, we were the first to arrive at St Breock Down. After much deliberation as to the best place to park the car, I began to set up my two tripods and deck-chairs at the side of the trackway, at a spot that I had previously identified as ideal for the pictures I wanted to obtain. The sky was beautiful to the east, with a red 'mackerel sky', the shadows lengthy over the misty fields. The atmosphere of anticipation for me was immense. I really could not believe that my 17 year wait would end in only a few hours. Whilst the sun was still shining, there was still a hope that I might just see nature's most wonderful spectacle. I was taking each minute as it came, and setting up everything as early as I possibly could. I did not want to find that I had forgotten something critical with only moments to go. My friend noticed that the sheep in the nearby field were all lying down. They looked peculiar, as though they knew something odd was about to happen. The windmills at the nearby wind farm were largely still, and only a couple of them were spinning very slowly. Symptomatic, I assume, of the stillness of the air at this time of the day.

But there were dark clouds towards the west, and they were threatening to move overhead and wipe out the sun. I wondered if I might just be able to capture the start of the eclipse, even if the rest of it was clouded out. The Met Office's forecast - even from ten days before - looked like it was going to be spot on for today.

During the next hour, a few more cars arrived. They drove past us and carried on to the summit of the hill, disappearing from site. My friend and I sat in the car and chatted, anticipating the event, and I occasionally walked across to the cameras to check their alignment, and to dissuade other approaching traffic from stopping nearby. I wanted to be alone in this spot!

My friend periodically handed me the headphones for his Walkman radio. He was listening to a local radio station (Radio Cornwall, I think) who were interviewing various personalities with an interest in the eclipse. Peter Duffett-Smith said this was the first eclipse he would see. He had written a book back in the early 1980s about using a calculator to compute astronomical ephemerides, and I had used his book as a main reference when I first started programming my ZX Spectrum computer back in 1982. It was the first time I had ever heard him interviewed. Apparently he had been the first person to bring the public's attention to the eclipse in 1989, when he became the first person to book a hotel room for August 1999! Apparently some journalists did not believe him at that time when he said the eclipse would take place over Cornwall! Astrologer Russell Grant also commented on the significance of the event, and Patrick Moore said that he had wanted to be in this country to witness the event - the last eclipse of the millennium - even though the prospects for seeing it had always been better abroad. At his location at St Andrews Head near Penzance, it was already overcast. "Today it looks like I've been beaten" he said.

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I had a drink of water and a biscuit, and by 8 am it was clear that the dark clouds had made significant progress from the west and they were just about overhead now. I looked towards the north-east, towards my home town of Cardiff, and I wondered if the sky was clear there. The sky certainly looked brighter in that direction.

By 9 am we had effectively lost the sun, and it was clear now that the weather forecasters had been right about today. Even their forecast from ten days ago was looking on track! 

Many more cars were arriving now, and my sense of ease was disturbed when one of the cars pulled up and parked directly behind ours! Our chosen spot was beginning to become a little too public for my liking, and I began to think about re-locating the tripods and chairs further along the track. My friend tried to discourage me from doing so, but I sensed this situation would only get worse.

'Two cameras pointing towards a cloudy sky, anticipating a clear patch, and two empty seats, abandoned as if in despair..' (17 KB)'Two cameras pointing towards a cloudy sky, anticipating a clear patch, and two empty seats, abandoned as if in despair..' (click for full-size image, 17 KB)

We noticed people were walking up the track from the main road, where a number of cars had parked. We watched three women walk towards us, and as they passed they saw my camera equipment and called to us "You're well equipped!" About half an hour later they walked back from whence they had come. Minutes later, one of the women walked back towards us and as she approached our car she asked "Is it okay if I take a picture of your tripods? To me they seem to typify the eclipse!" We agreed that she could, and in a way I knew what she meant. Two cameras pointing towards a cloudy sky, anticipating a clear patch, and two empty seats, abandoned as if in despair; it would have made a good picture on a newspaper or magazine. We were surprised at how long she stayed to photograph the tripods. She must have taken at least five pictures from different angles. She stayed for a good ten minutes or so. My friend could see the driver in the car behind chuckling at the woman, and he himself took a picture of her taking a picture. My friend also joined in the fun.

Two motor bikes drove back down the hill and then began turning into the other track where the road forked. The leading motorcyclist saw the woman taking pictures of the tripods and he stopped his motorbike for a few moments whilst she took her pictures. It was a strange sight indeed - a sincere Hell's Angel!

Another car drove past and its driver, a man perhaps in his sixties, saw my camera set up and called across to us "Special?" I acknowledged even though I did not understand what he meant. Presumably he thought we were members of the press or even the TV. My friend began to think we seemed important in other people's eyes. In fact, I was surprised that no one else had any tripods set up anywhere on the mountain.

My concern rose to crisis point as another car pulled up and parked in front of us, with four occupants inside. Now I felt as if I was becoming a focus of public attention. I knew I simply had to move those tripods to a new location.

I got out of the car and picked up both tripods, moving them about 50 yards further up the track. My friend then brought along the deck chairs. This spot was more isolated and away from the main traffic, which was heading along a fork in the road just behind us. My friend somehow found out that the local farmer was charging people to park their cars at the top of the hill, and that's where they were all heading. This meant that only certain (invited?) people were able to drive up this track. This made it a lot easier for me, since a young man was now blocking any access to our particular stretch of road with a motorised buggy, stopping unwanted people from entering. I now felt that I had achieved that special spot on the moorland, although I still couldn't help thinking that my tripod set-up was causing some of the attention. I myself was beginning to feel important, on my own stretch of track!

The sheep in the field behind us (which contained one of the two standing stones on this mountain) were walking back and forth en masse every so often in a rather confused manner. They were being constantly disturbed by people climbing over the field gate to have a look at the stone. This would be one of the strangest days they had ever known. They must have wondered why, on this particular morning, their peace had been broken by the invasion of around 300 people! And an even stranger, natural event was about to happen.

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The eclipse started at around 9:57 BST, but to look at the people around us. you would have no reason to think that anything unusual was happening. We couldn't see the sun, and only had our watches to guide us in the progression of events. The start of the eclipse seemed to pass unnoticed by most.

People continued to arrive, now parking almost anywhere they could find a space to pull in. Others seemed to be arriving by foot. At one point, around eight motorbikes rode past us, one after another, heading up towards the summit of the hill. Their procession commanded attention from people all around.

The next hour for me was full of anxious anticipation, of checking and re-checking the camera settings and alignments. I showed my friend how I wanted him to take photographs in the dark whilst I operated the video camera. This would ease the workload, I thought, and give us both time to observe and experience totality when it happened.

My friend had gone back to the car to fetch some items, and whilst he was away everyone became aware of a low flying aircraft drone which was evidently getting closer. I looked to the east, and I was amazed to see a Lancaster bomber flying towards us, followed a short distance behind by a Spitfire, on their way to an air show somewhere alone the coast. It was a spectacular sight watching them fly overhead - as if the atmosphere was not already peculiar enough, it now felt as if we had been transported back to the 1940s! About ten minutes later we heard a roar of aircraft jet engines, and looking to the north the Red Arrows formation team raced past us, evidently heading for the same air show.

At 10:40 I headed briefly back to the car to start the tape recording of aircraft activity with my scanner and tape recorder. After several minutes' adjustment to obtain the best reception, I began the recording at 10:46. Since one side of the tape was 45 minutes long, I had planned to have around 25 minutes before and 20 minutes after the eclipse on tape.

The sky to the west was darkening, and it began to feel a bit colder. By about 10:45, we could feel spots of rain coming down and the wind was starting to pick up. The wind seemed to be coming from the west. This was the direction from which the clouds were approaching, but it was also from where the moon's shadow was approaching. It was difficult at this point to determine which was causing the wind to blow, and the temperature to drop. The rain was a real concern. The last thing I wanted was for the cameras - and us - to get wet. By a huge stroke of luck, however, the rain had eased within minutes, and it was no longer posing a problem. The light level had now dropped to a point that seemed unnaturally low, a dimness that could not be achieved by thick cloud alone. I thought the colour of the light was orange-yellow, but my friend later disagreed. By now it was obvious to everyone that we were heading towards totality. At around 11:00, my friend turned to me and said, "In ten minutes it will all be over."

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With the sky now darkening notably, I decided to start my video camera recording at around 11:10, to make the most of the falling light on the landscape. My friend had already taken a couple of photographs with my standard camera. I glanced at my watch in the fading light, and I could see it was 11:11. Totality was almost here!

With only moments to go, I suddenly hit a major problem. My video camera suddenly developed a focussing problem! It was no longer able to keep its focus on the distant landscape, and looking through the viewfinder I noticed with horror that the camera was trying to focus on a number of rain-drops which had fallen on the lens. The focus was shifting violently from zero to infinity, and I realised that my video recording had been instantly ruined. I tried to attempt a manual over-ride of the focus, but the camera did not seem to respond to my actions.

This photograph was taken during totality, with an exposure of around 12 seconds (64 KB)This photograph was taken during totality, with an exposure of around 12 seconds (click for full-size image, 64 KB). Although the eclipsed sun was not itself visible, the photographic film did succeed in capturing some of the coronal light shining through the clouds. This lighting effect was not at all obvious to observers on the ground.

Darkness fell very suddenly. In fact, it seemed to happen whilst I was looking through the viewfinder, because the next thing I remember I was looking to the south and seeing a lighthouse flashing somewhere on the coast. Some people cheered around me and others clapped as the darkness came, but they were quite far away and they did not disturb me in any way. I was still recovering from the shock of my failed video recording, and looking back I wonder whether this might have spoilt my attention of totality.

It was not my only distraction. A firework exploded in the distance, and then just to the right of it I noticed three bright pink objects just hanging in the sky. It took me several seconds to realise that they were flares. Looking back, my attention to those flares wasted valuable seconds of observing time, as did the firework. Lights had come on over a distant town, and I could see that from our location, north of the line of totality, the darkness extended right down to the horizon. It seemed to be lighter behind me, in the direction of the wind farm. I looked to my right and I saw a young woman take a photograph of one of her companions who was crouched down on the track. The flash of her camera briefly illuminated the area.

Most people remained silent during the darkness, which I sensed was darker than anyone had expected it would be. One of the sheep was bleating in the field behind, evidently confused, and there was an eerie stillness in the air. I glanced at my watch again, and I was interested to see that I could still just about read the time. My friend said, "What's that?" and I replied "What?" I didn't want any disturbances during this short moment of darkness, and I was already reeling with disappointment at my failed video recording. "I can't believe my camera let me down at the last moment" I said. All in all, my attention was not totally on the eclipse, and after seventeen years of waiting, I couldn't afford to be thinking about something else when it finally happened!

After a minute and a half, my friend said, "Is it getting lighter?" I looked towards the distant hills and I could see that the light was returning quickly. "Yeah, that's it. It's over!" I replied. I held my arms up to the sky as the light returned and said, "Look at that!" The suddenness of the light changes had surprised us all. It seemed as though someone had been operating a dimmer switch for the whole sky; a sunset and sunrise speeded up a million times. I had not sensed any movement in the shadow, as one would expect, as it passed from west to cast over us, and this is one thing I felt I had missed out on. But then, perhaps I had just not been observant enough. Or maybe the cloud masked the whole effect anyway. I don't think I will ever know now.

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It was at this point that I began to feel that I had missed out on something, really big. We could see the changes in the light and the effect on the landscape, but it was frustrating that we had been unable to see what had been causing it. The image of the eclipsed sun was still just that - an image in my mind, and strangely hard to reconcile with what I had just witnessed beneath the cloud. I felt I had been denied an opportunity, as though I had not been allowed to see the sun. As one astronomer later put it, I felt we had been cheated. The sense of anti-climax for me was immense, as though I were suffering a post-ecliptic shock. This was tinged with anger, both at myself for failing to secure a good video recording, and also because I had not really seen the eclipse at all. I wanted it to happen all over again, so that I could record it properly next time, and have a really good look around me. It was a feeling of something not complete, of many unanswered questions. And I also had a nagging feeling that I might have had a better view if I had been just a few miles further south.

After daylight had returned, people slowly made their way back to their cars, and no doubt exchanging their feelings for what they had just witnessed. My friend had put his Walkman radio back on and he said to me "Patrick Moore said he didn't see the corona." A lorry drove slowly passed us and momentarily stopped. The driver, probably in his forties with a beard, looked at us and said, "What did you think of that then?" My friend replied that he had thought it was an amazing spectacle to witness. The man then said, "According to the radio some people in Cornwall got to see the whole thing!" My heart sank a little when I heard this statement. I would rather nobody had seen it from Cornwall, rather than just a select few! 

The picture of the eclipse from BBC Television's live coverage of the event (51 KB)This is the view that observers on the ground wanted to see! This picture was from BBC Television's live coverage of the eclipse, taken from aboard an RAF Hercules aircraft flying above the cloud level (click for full-size image, 51 KB)

Many cars left straight away, but since I wanted to record as much of the aircraft overhead as possible, I decided to stay in order to fill the entire second half of the cassette. The eclipse would end at around 12:30 BST, and we stayed at least until that time. Some people noticed that the clouds appeared to be clearing about 15 minutes after totality had taken place, and some of them were putting their eclipse viewers on to see the emerging sun. I too joined in, but I could see little. There was simply too much thick cloud passing in front of the sun to obtain a clear image. I could just about sense that the lower left third of the sun was eclipsed by the moon, but since there was so much cloud around it I refused to accept that I had actually seen this. My friend was quite happy to accept that he had glimpsed the partial phase of the eclipse. The cloud thickened again and all hope of seeing any more quickly disappeared. We had been the first car to arrive on the site that morning, and we were also the last to leave.

I was determined to get back to the cottage to see how other people in Cornwall had fared.

The drive back was relatively uneventful, except that the traffic headed north-west was clearly heavy, causing some delay when we tried to re-join one of the main roads. On arriving back at the cottage I called up the teletext, only to find that my home town of Cardiff had had one of the best views of the partial eclipse! The best views of totality had been seen from southern Devon (Torbay), around the Lizard, the Scilly Islands and Alderney. None of them had a clear view, but they all had a relatively thin layer of cloud to look through. I am not aware of anybody on the ground who saw planets or stars around the eclipsed sun.

Reactions to the totality over the next few days were interesting to hear, and I could appreciate just about all of them. One observer described the atmosphere as almost primitive, of humanity crowded on a hilltop watching nature's awesome spectacle. Patrick Moore had never witnessed a total eclipse under cloudy skies, so it had been a new experience for him. He thought the sudden fall in light had been eerie, as though we had all been transported to another world for a few minutes. The county's Planning Officer, Gage Williams, described the event as 'humbling', a description with which I would certainly sympathise.

And so the 11th August has come and gone, and this will be my most detailed record of the event. Of course, I still have the videocam recording, the tape of the aircraft activity in the skies overhead, and a video recording of the BBC's live coverage of the event.

In conclusion, I can only say that despite my overall disappointment at the events of the day, I did feel privileged to have been stood under the moon's shadow at the precise moment it had passed. In a sense, it is as though I was there by special invitation of the Moon itself. When the eclipse was over, I felt a great respect for science, of its power for precise prediction to the exact second. Above all, perhaps, I felt proud to be an amateur astronomer, one who could claim to have a profound interest not just in the eclipse for which I had waited so long, but also for anything astronomical, past, present or future. For just that one day, everyone had become an astronomer, their normally dormant sense of wonder awakened, a sense for which I can proudly say I would never dare lose sight of.

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An annular solar eclipse took place on May 31st 2003 and was visible from Northern Scotland and North of the UK through to Greenland; it was partial from much of Europe and Asia.

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The Cornish Total Eclipse (Desktop Site)

Hale-Bopp: The Great Comet of 1997

Photographs of the Night Sky

Find Sagittarius in the Night Sky

Copyright  Martin J Powell  1999

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