Total Solar Eclipse, Cornwall, 11 August 1999

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I made it down to Cornwall for the solar eclipse on 11 August 1999. I'd seen a good number of eclipses before, but this was my first real chance to see a total solar eclipse, and I wasn't going to let a little thing like the English weather stop me. I wrote it up afterwards for a couple of the places I hang out online. Here's my trip report.

Back from my trip to Cornwall, where I spent Wednesday morning up on the bit of moor at Minions. This was fairly elevated and open, so there was a good view of a substantial part of both the western and eastern horizon. There were lots of other people with the same idea:-) We had the hazy cloud acting as a filter, allowing (careful) looks at the sun without a filter every so often, so there was ample opportunity to watch the progression of the partial phase. I've seen a partial eclipse before, but it was still interesting to watch, in between trying to get the cameras set up, and discovering that my lightweight tripod had a broken clamp <sulk>. Thank god for the reel of masking tape...

The sky was overcast, with at least two layers of cloud and probably more, but occasional breaks in one of the layers allowing the sun to be seen. Not bright enough to be able to use the projection trick, which meant I had to line up the cameras by looking along the top of the body rather than using the shadow of the camera (what shadow?) or projection through the viewfinder. There was also the *very* occasional complete break, which meant NO PEEKING through viewfinders because there was always the risk you'd do it just at the wrong moment. I left the lens caps on my cameras whenever I wasn't standing right next to them, and I'm glad I did, one of the kids in the party came along and looked through the viewfinder on one while I was busy getting something else out of the car. In spite of having been told not to.

First contact was about 9:55, but we didn't see the exact moment because a cloud got in the way, and it was difficult to tell if we were seeing moon or cloud. Later on, when the cloud thickness was just right, it was possible to see the Earthlight on the dark side of the moon. About 10:40, we noticed a cool breeze, and the temperature then dropped quite noticeably. Somewhere around 10:45, I started to notice the light dimming, although to begin with I wasn't sure if it was just the cloud thickening up. About two or three minutes before totality, the light was dimming very rapidly, with a strange quality to it, rather as if there were very heavy snowstorm clouds overhead. This was the point where there started to be too many things to look at at once. The sheep had been bleating a fair bit, and the dogs started barking a lot more enthusiastically. I was watching the sun, or at least the patch of cloud the sun was behind, hoping to see the diamond ring if the damned cloud would move out the way. It did, and there was a thin crescent of light. I glanced up at the cloud cover towards the western horizon, and there was the shadow racing towards us. I am not ashamed to say that I yelled something along the lines of "Look at that!!!" The clouds directly overhead were a rather dark grey, but there was this blanket of black hurtling towards us, and a brief glimpse at the land beneath showed nothing but darkness. Attention back on the sun, hoping for Bailey's Beads. Didn't get them, I think because of the interference from the clouds, but there was one final burst of light with the diamond ring effect. I saw only the diamond and a very thin portion of the ring immediately next to it, the rest was covered by a cloud that chose that exact moment to move over. Much swearing. It was as dark as night, with a faint white light in the clouds, and *cold*. And eerie. It didn't register immediately, but the dogs and sheep had gone quiet. So had the humans, at least until the chorus of "Look at that" started up again. Flashbulbs going off everywhere. A thin band of sunlight on the land to the east, then yellows and oranges and reds in the sky on the horizon - *both* horizons. Sunset and sunrise at once. I gave up trying to catch a glimpse of the Dark Sun through the clouds, there was nothing doing there, and started waving one of the cameras at the horizon, trying to get a picture of the sunset in the East. At which point someone yelled at me, "Look at the corona." So I looked up, and there was a tiny break in the cloud, with a small portion of the corona showing through, and a second later the cloud closed up again. It was so fast I didn't even register what it looked like, although I did have my wits sufficiently about me to hit the shutter release on the camera still pointed at the sun. I hope. I haven't had the film developed yet. All I have is an impression of a fan of white light, astonishingly bright to dark-adapted eyes, quite unlike normal sunlight, and utterly, heartbreakingly beautiful. Photos don't begin to do it justice.

And then the other edge of the shadow was racing towards us across the clouds, and there was sunlight visible on the moor in the distance in the West. Too fast, too fast, and I bitterly regretted at the time that I hadn't gone down to the two minutes totality area. I changed my mind later, when I saw the tv reports and realised that most of the two minute track in Cornwall hadn't seen the corona at all. The edge of the shadow swept across the clouds above us, and there was the diamond again, on the other side of the sun, bright enough to show through a thin patch in the cloud cover. No Bailey's Beads. A thin crescent of light, and then the clouds closed up. The light level seemed to increase far more rapidly than it had decreased - it seemed to be at a normal cloudy day within a minute or two. I don't know whether this is just physiological - that we adapt to bright light faster than to dim light.

It felt something of a letdown immediately afterwards. I first knew about this eclipse about 19 or 20 years ago, and made the decision then that if I could get to it I would. Twenty years of waiting for a minute or less, and then I didn't get to see the Dark Sun. I don't even have clear memories of my glimpse of a little of the corona. But - it was a magical experience. The cloud-covered totality has a magic of its own. Seeing the shadow sweep towards us, the *speed* of it... Day turned to night within a few seconds. It's awe-inspiring, and the reports on the news about people in London etc having a much better view of the eclipse than the people in totality are talking rubbish. Nothing, not even a perfect view of 99%, compares with having that vast shadow blot out the day to bring a temporary night. I'm a scientist, and an armchair astronomer. I stood on that moor shivering, and not just with cold. I can understand only too clearly the reactions of cultures that didn't understand orbital mechanics.

My photos weren't good enough in 6x4" format to be worth scanning, and I never got around to scanning the negatives and doing a bit of tweaking in Photoshop, so no pretty pictures. Look at the ones on the NASA site instead.

In the comments on my post, someone mentioned thinking that the light level went back to normal within a few seconds, so I have an addendum:

I quoted one or two minutes because that's how long it was before my brain was functioning well enough to consciously register that the light level seemed very bright in comparison with just before totality. I thought afterwards that it was probably a matter of seconds, but I simply didn't notice, I was too busy trying to watch the shadow disappearing over the horizon, then going "wah!!!" because it was over.

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