An eclipse of the sun is a cosmic coincidence caused purely because the sun is 400 times bigger than the moon and it is also 400 times further away, so the moon will block out the sun's light for a full two minutes when the two bodies are in alignment.
The following is an account of the total eclipse of the sun visible from Devon and Cornwall in 1999:
Originally from the Devon borders, I return each summer to my beloved West Country roots and retrace the footsteps of my youth.I am accompanied nowadays by my husband and four children who are all Yorkshire born and bred; for them Cornish pasties, derelict tin mines and miles of un-commercialised golden sands are somewhat of a novelty; but for me they are pure nostalgia. We visit my elderly Mother, participating in her birthday celebrations in early August before heading westwards for a holiday at Praa Sands near Penzance.
In 1999, we were provided us with an added bonus; we were in Cornwall for the final total solar eclipse of the twentieth century.
Penzance was situated directly on the line of totality,which meant the sun would be obscured by the Moon for a full two minutes; we would be treated to a marvelous display of cosmic fireworks - if the clouds didn't get in the way.
We did not classify ourselves as either tourists or "Eclipse hunters" since we would have been there regardless at that time of year;but nevertheless, bearing witness to such a rare phenomenon made our stay a more memorable one.
It was the morning of 11th August:
At daybreak the sun had shone briefly over Mount's Bay giving the promise of clear skies throughout South-Western Cornwall.Hopeful eclipse-watchers began painstakingly setting up their equipment with a general feeling of optimism, but as the morning progressed. blue skies gave way to an ever increasing blanket of thick, grey cloud. Cool rain started to fall in defiant droplets, drenching the dispirited onlookers and forcing them to seek shelter. Only the most hardened enthusiasts remained,unassailable in their determination; having waited years for this day they were not yet ready to concede defeat.
Visitors and locals alike were continuing to purchase protective eye-shields,just in case the clouds miraculously parted at the last minute,although by 10.00 am pessimism had already replaced the initial optimistic atmosphere.
The renowned astronomer, Patrick Moore, had said during an interview for local television in Falmouth, that he would "Retire to the nearest pub" if the weather failed to oblige.
There is little use being angry with the forces of nature; we must humbly accept that even in these days of modern technological advancement there are still greater powers than ourselves.
Until 10.30 my family watched the special eclipse coverage on television,in the comfortable surroundings of our holiday bungalow; but we had already decided to brave the elements and climb to the highest point above the beach at Praa Sands in order to experience the unusual event first hand.
By 10.45 we were standing on a bleak, precipitous cliff top looking directly out into the English Channel, with Mount's Bay to the west and Trewaras Head to the east. The sky was completely overcast and dreary; all hope had long since faded of there being a break in the clouds within the next twenty minutes.
The beach,two hundred feet below was crowded; this in itself seemed odd in view of the adverse weather.People had formed circles and were lighting candles as though they were Druids taking part in some ancient pagan ritual.
They began to dance to the steady rhythm of an incantation from a bygone epoch and we could soon hear the melodic strains drifting towards us.
The time of the eclipse drew closer; the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day. An uncanny coincidence which various mystics interpreted as a sign of impending doom.
The sky darkened but towards the southern horizon there remained a pink band of light. Suddenly the temperature fell dramatically as totality approached, making us shiver and regret we had not brought our coats. There was a primitive,almost eerie feeling in the atmosphere as darkness enveloped us.
The sea gulls started to behave erratically, screeching at one another in a wild confusion of beating wings. A dog howled inconsolably until it was comforted by its master. It seemed as if Mother Nature herself had been stopped in her tracks.
Totality was now upon us.
Had it been a clear day we would have seen the Moon's shadow racing towards us,across the sea at a speed of two hundred miles per hour,immediately before the great Cornish cliffs of granite were plunged into absolute darkness.
The distant outlines of a ruined engine house and its accompanying mine workings were now just ghostly images on the opposite headland at Rinsey.
Below us, the beach was ablaze with myriad camera flashes and the street lights of a nearby village were automatically activated as the light level dropped.
High above the clouds, the drone of an aircraft could be heard; it was an RAF Hercules with a team of B.B.C cameramen on board; they climbed to 30,000 feet in order to film the eclipse in all its splendid glory.
We on the ground, although denied a visual display were able to experience totality through our other senses, and we were grateful to have been there, beneath the shadow of the Moon.
Totality had now passed and it had seemed the swiftest two minutes of my life. The daylight returned rapidly as a faraway rosy glow appeared to herald a second dawn.
Normality was resumed as the Moon's shadow now sped away from us to continue on its journey across Europe and Asia, where it would finally come to rest that evening in the Bay of Bengal.
We,at the end of the second millennium were well aware that the Sun would return again after two minutes' absence,but imagine the sheer panic of ancient civilisations who knew nothing of astronomy...which deity had they offended to be utterly cast into complete darkness? The Sun, the source of all life to be so suddenly and cruelly snatched away. How could they have any way of knowing that the Sun was merely hidden by the Moon, its rays temporarily blocked out?
During the time spent on the cliff top 1n Cornwall I had an opportunity to reflect on mortality and the insignificance of the human life-span when compared to an astronomical scale. In 1927 when the last eclipse came to these shores my Father was an unborn child still waiting to embark on life's journey.He died in 1999 aged seventy one - a lifetime lived between eclipses.If my youngest son, who is not yet six, lives to see the next total solar eclipse visible from Britain he will be ninety four.
Our brief lives are mere flames which flicker for an instant in the darkness of forever.
Upon our return to our holiday home we discovered that very few people in the South West had managed to see the eclipse. Holidaymakers in Torbay and Newquay had been lucky since the clouds miraculously dispersed at the very last moment. People in my former hometown of Plymouth were not so fortunate, although they were able to watch a live broadcast of the eclipse projected onto a vast television screen on Plymouth Hoe.
Wherever they were or whatever they were doing,I feel certain the eclipse of 1999 was an occurrence the people of the West country will remember for a long time to come.
In the early hours of January 21st 2000 there was a total lunar eclipse visible from the UK. My husband woke us and paraded us in a military fashion outside into the bitterly cold garden(The neighbours would have thought our house was on fire had they spotted us standing there, shivering in our nightclothes!)The exceptionally clear night sky gave us a brilliant view of the Earth's shadow traveling across the surface of the Moon;and the Moon itself gave all the appearance of burnished gold.
It was indeed a wondrous sight.Seeing the eclipse of the Moon that night was more than adequate compensation for missing out on the solar eclipse the year before.
Over the next few days I asked friends and acquaintances if they too had got up in the night to view the celestial spectacle; they said they couldn't be bothered. How can this be? I asked myself. For these were the very same people who were willing to travel the length and breadth of the country the previous year in the hope of seeing an eclipse of the Sun!