The August 1999 total solar eclipse was the first visible in the U.K. since 1927. (stock photo)
“That’s eet, then?”
With that summation, the last total eclipse of the millennium ended after 40 seconds under an overcast sky on Dartmoor for a young Manchester woman with two cranky kids.
“I kood ‘ave stayed at ‘ome an’ seen ninety percent ov it. I’m absolutely gutted.”
It was one opinion. But for the thousands of other people whose cars lined the road to Princeton for miles, who scrambled over the rocky tors and among the sheep and ponies for the best views of…of clouds, it was surely a minority opinion.
Because even without the sun, even without the Baily’s Beads, the “diamond ring” effect, the chromosphere, “eet” was a show. And if, like me, and my Devonian wife, you’d only traveled an hour from North Devon, without kids, it was well worth the trouble.
True, the thick cloud cover blocked out all sightings of the sun except a momentary apparition of a partial eclipse, which the crowd must have willed out of the gloom. From our hilltop perch it was like sitting under a grey galactic wok. But the minutes leading up to totality and the blackout itself stunned everyone, even silencing our gutted friend’s children for an instant.
Most sungazers had waited for hours. Some had camped. By ten o’clock, they had no hope of seeing the sun, as thicker clouds moved in from the Atlantic.
“Which way are we supposed to be looking?” someone asked.
“I dunno, which way are the telescopes pointed?” was the helpful reply.
Without being able to watch the moon’s path across the sun, we had to wait for twilight to know totality was approaching.
The twilight came imperceptibly at first; but darkened rapidly over about ten minutes. The faint warmth of the winter morning vanished as the temperature jolted to freezing. There was still plenty of light until precisely 11.13 a.m., when, just as the experts explained would happen, the western horizon went black.
At first it was just a thin black streak against the edge of the moor. Then, suddenly, the blackness rushed east over our heads as if the light had been rolled up like a great celestial carpet.
I was abruptly reminded of some verses of scripture: “In the Beginning was the Word, and the Word was: ‘Crikey, Sylvia look at that!’…And Darkness was upon the Face of the Deep.”
In the distant south, below us, the automatic streetlights of Plymouth switched on to outline the city and illuminate the English coast. Throughout the moor, hundreds of cameras flashed in a futile attempt to photograph – I dare say what. For a few seconds there was no sound but the brisk blackened wind over the grasses.
As soon as the crowd understood, without the aid of actually seeing the sun’s corona, that we were in a total eclipse, the western horizon began to lighten again. In a few more seconds, the whole cloud cover turned a pale luminous color of silver. It was a color of sky I have previously seen only in advance of vast tornado fronts crossing the American plains.
Then dawn broke. The natural dappled light of a cloudy English day resumed its rightful place to spontaneous applause and cheering across the moor. And God saw that it was good.
It took a few more minutes before people talked again. Then little by little, they began to shift themselves off the rocks and tramp back to the road to start their long motorcade up the moor lanes.
And then, that was eet.