I can entirely understand the excitement around the total solar eclipse yesterday in the USA and I hope that lots of people get to experience something which I found very special. Hopefully they will get to see a bit more than I did all those years ago in Cornwall, but the sort of feelings that I recall from way back in 1999 have stuck with me, which is why if anyone ever asks me if it is worth putting yourself out to be right in the shadow of a total solar eclipse the answer would always be yes.
Back in 1999 I co-organized a group to go down to Cornwall for that eclipse, about fifteen of us camped out in Helston village hall; well it kept the costs down.
On the day of the eclipse everyone was rather excited. There was a general sense of anticipation in the local area, and perhaps also a little bit of nervousness. There is something very primal about celestial events, and the pub whose board outside jokingly read ‘Repent! The End of the World is Nigh!’ summed up the feeling quite well.
That enthusiasm was a little dampened by the fact it was obviously not going to be the best weather conditions at the relatively early hour the eclipse was due. We climbed up onto fields near the sea, on one side looking down onto Falmouth bay, and inland looking towards the massive radio telescopes of Goonhilly. As we sat down to wait we were at first mildly concerned we would be moved on by the approach of someone who was clearly the local farmer; in fact, he invited us to go into the middle of the next field and join his family and friends. That was the first thing; people acting in a way that was disturbingly friendly to complete strangers.
As we watched the clouds steadfastly obscuring the sun, we kept an eye on the clock. Eventually, fortified on sausage rolls and cake it was time.
We could not see the sun, but you very quickly saw something was changing. The best way I can describe it is that a wave of darkness swept towards us from the telescopes, and rolled over us and past, out to see, the darkness intensifying all the time until it was completely black. Serious, complete blackness. And silent. The cows in the field, the birds and everyone in the field were for a few seconds completely silent, as though everything was holding its breath. Looking out to see you could see light at the edge of the shadow, but for a few moments everything just stopped and the only movement was tiny flashes of light from the cameras of the masses that had collected on Falmouth beach.
And then suddenly it was over. It was as though someone had turned up a huge dimmer switch as the return to daylight was quick, but also gradual. Suddenly the birds were singing as though it was dawn, the cows were mooing and pretty much everyone was hugging each other and giggling like five year olds. Champagne appeared in small plastic cups. No one seemed remotely upset we had not actually see the moon pass across the sun until a little glimpse through the clouds after the fact. But everyone under the shadow had felt it happen, and that was enough to cement it as an experience and for a short while at least bind everyone together with that shared happening.
The sense of euphoria lasted for most of the day. Nobody wanted to talk about it; there was not much to say, there was just this sense of release, as though the tension of the darkness had been lifted, the sun restored and life goes on. It is very easy to see how in the past such events were extremely portentous. We all knew that a few seconds later it would get light again, throughout much of history that was not the case. It must have been a terrifying experience in the past, but now it is a reminder of the celestial spheres and another of those wondrous things that the moon is just big enough at certain points to completely blot out the sun.
It’s just marvellous.