The day the sun went out.

Paul Stephens reports from the Solar Eclipse 1999

I'm far too decent a person to even think about renting my house out for 10,000 to gullible tourists (honest!), so I was at home near Lands End in Cornwall on August 11th to witness the much-heralded "last solar eclipse of the Millennium". Like almost everyone else in the West of England, I didn't actually get to see the sun, since there was heavy cloud cover throughout the eclipse period. What those of us near the line of totality did, however, experience was the darkness as the moon completely covered the sun's face.

For the first hour, as the moon partially eclipsed the sun, there really was no difference in light level - in fact it had been darker at 8.30am, due to cloud thickness, than it was at 10.30, with the sun nearly half covered. By 11.00, ten minutes before totality, it had become quite murky, although it was still hard to tell whether this was due to the eclipse or the clouds.

At 11.10am the light faded, and did it amazingly quickly; in less than 30 seconds we went from daylight (albeit of a fairly gloomy variety) to late dusk, as if someone was operating a celestial dimmer switch. The sky to the west and east was as dark as night, but it remained light above the horizon to the south and (to a lesser extent) north. As a result we weren't in complete darkness, but were instead lit faintly and indirectly by sunlight bouncing off the Earth's atmosphere beyond the moon's shadow. 

The effect was similar to pre-dawn and post-sunset, two times of every day when we're lit in this way. However, with its dark overhead sky and lighter horizon in multiple directions, the totality more closely resembled being directly under a heavy bank of storm cloud with clear weather in the distance. That's something you experience quite often if you live on the edge of the Atlantic, and although totality was far more dramatic (and happened far more quickly, since low-lying storm clouds seldom travel at 1,000 mph), it had a definite familiarity to it.  

As well as blocking our view of the sun, the heavy clouds denied us two other eclipse effects. Because the light was so diffused, we saw no approaching shadow on the sea or the clouds, and no unusual light patterns on the ground. And if there was a drop in temperature, it was too small to notice - not surprising, as instead of being plunged from bright sunlight into darkness, we merely went from gloom to greater gloom. 

The local animal population didn't seem over-impressed either. The cows in the next field stayed resolutely upright during the totality, as did my neighbour's dog, although the crows left their vantage points on the telephone wires for the period of darkness. Much more excited were the human visitors who crammed onto the hill behind us, and (rather precariously) the clifftop a few fields away. There was whooping and cheering, plus the popping of dozens of flashguns (which will, no doubt, soon result in dozens of people wishing they're read their cameras' instruction books). They were determined to make an event of the eclipse, and, clouds or no clouds, they seemed to be managing it. 

I did experience one phenomenon which eclipse veterans had promised us - the unbelievable speed with which the two minutes of totality passed. Without seeing the sun it was impossible to tell when totality actually began and ended, but it seemed more like a few seconds before the sky in the west began to brighten again. Then the celestial dimmer switch - by far the most impressive feature of the cloudy eclipse - was turned up as quickly as it had been turned down, and we went from dusk to dawn in another thirty seconds.

At that point I assumed it was all over - the moon continued to partially obscure the sun, but we couldn't see it, and the light level had returned to that of an ordinary cloudy day (a type, incidentally, far more frequent in Cornwall during August than the tourist industry would like you to think). However there was an unexpected bonus. Later, through a gap in the heavy cloud cover, though still screened by higher layers, there was the sun, with the black moon covering its bottom-left quarter. I saw it for around three seconds before the low cloud closed in again. I'm glad I did, although it reminded me of what we would have seen if the weather had been fine.  

Was the cloudy eclipse worth seeing? Definitely - just experiencing the light level altering that quickly was quite extraordinary. Was it moving, mystical or life-changing? Basically, no.

It went dark, then it got light again, but it does that every night, and we understand the reasons why it happened during the eclipse every bit as well as we do the process of night and day. In fact, having seen both, I think that a dark shadow over the land is well beaten in the awe-inspiring natural beauty stakes by a really good sunset over the sea. Even in cloudy Cornwall I shouldn't have to wait until 2090 to see another one of those.

POSTSCRIPT

This is what the sky looked like in west Cornwall at 11.11am the day after the eclipse - perfect, with not so much as a wisp of cloud anywhere near the sun! In fact the sun beat down relentlessly all day. Game, set and match to the Cornish weather yet again!


Meanwhile, if you watched the BBC's overcast and occasionally rain-soaked eclipse coverage from Marazion, near Penzance (and didn't those poor presenters work hard?), here's what Marazion and St Michael's Mount looked like just 24 hours later. Makes you sick, doesn't it?

(c) Paul Stephens, 1999

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