Travel Essay: When I was your age, Grandma said, the sun disappeared, a bit at a time like a giant eating an apple.
I was twelve or there abouts, as she herself had been in 1927 when she had witnessed the eclipse and was captivated by the idea of this wondrous event, a once in a lifetime phenomenon. My sense at the time was that she was describing a total eclipse although I know now that it was partial, at least from Suffolk where my grandmother had grown up. Had the mistake come from my own misunderstanding or from her embellishment? It’s hard to know but it didn’t matter anyway. When she told me as a twelve-year-old, that there would be another eclipse, in 1999 shortly after my 21st birthday, I already knew there was no way I was going to miss it.
The future is a fuzzy place when you’re a child but even so, the date of 11th August 1999 was firmly installed in my mind, a little seed that I would talk about frequently while I was growing up.
As that precious once in a lifetime day edged closer, I started to feel a general reluctance from friends. The solar eclipse – my solar eclipse – wasn’t inspiring the same awe in others as it did in me. It would reach totality only at the southernmost tip of England in a narrow sweep across south Cornwall. This was a 350 mile drive and even those of us with a license, didn’t have cars. For some, it seemed like too much of a trek just to stand in the dark for a couple of minutes. Eventually though, in the spirit of adventure, I banded together three willing companions and a borrowed car and we hastily made plans.
The journey, although manageable in a single day morphed into a road trip and we set off with three days to spare. We lived in an army town and our car was loaded with surplus – huge down-filled waterproof sleeping bags, mess tins, flint and steel, bivouac bags. In the car we listened to Pink Floyd and listed our favourite movies. The first night we camped on the South Downs National Park and the second night in the New Forest, also a national park. Both times we woke in the morning to find notes from park rangers asking us to move on. We were young and indignant but we knew how to camp; make a clearing for your fire and leave no trace. It rained that night in the forest and we had made a shelter out of tarpaulin and rope, thrown over the overhanging boughs in our little clearing. We drank beer and ate beans huddled together against the British summer.
That second morning, waking in the forest, we also found wild ponies sniffing around our camp and nosing through our bags. We followed the ponies, up the road and into the village of Burley. Here the ponies – and other livestock – grazed on the verges and wandered into the road creating a gridlock, of sorts; the village probably had a population of around 1,000.
I had visited Burley as a child and the central street with its gift shops trading on its historical connection with witches, had stuck with me. We ate at a tearoom, bacon and eggs. The place was full of whimsy and slightly tacky charm and I told my friends about when had last visited here. The New Forest had been a place of magic when I was a child. A vast expanse of rolling hills and heather. All the places we had visited in the forest had seemed disconnected from each other, isolated within this sea of green.
We would have been happy to stay and visit some of the other villages and explore further but we were conscious of the time. We had left home two days earlier and only managed to get halfway to Cornwall, such was our habit of veering off towards interesting sounding places on the map. I was the navigator, sitting in the back with the map open on my lap, seeing the standing stones and barrows fly past and wishing we had time to stop at all of them.
That day – the third day of our trip – we stopped at both Beer and Budleigh Salterton, which both lay on the Jurassic Coast in Devon. It wasn’t the most direct route but the detours seemed worth it. I drank beer in Beer and fell in the sea in Budleigh Salterton while looking for smooth rocks to skim. We meandered along the coast then headed inland towards Cornwall.
I slept in the back of the car when I should have been navigating, two days of camping and lunchtime drinking taking their toll and when I awoke we were driving across the bleakest of landscapes. We had landed on Bodmin Moor and I had never seen a place like it. The sun was close to setting and in the distance, huge rock formations loomed over the scrub. We parked and camped, and told stories about The Beast of Bodmin, dismembered hikers, ancient spectres. Just after dark, a camper van parked nearby and a figure ambled over to us visible only in the glow of our campfire. He had the air of a free spirit about him – he was travelling alone and had seen our fire as an opportunity for companionship. Within a few minutes of his arrival, we found that he was not only travelling to see the eclipse but had travelled from the same town as us, albeit in a more direct fashion. We were practically neighbours.
The next morning we all woke late and once we’d stumbled out of our tent, found our new companion sitting, with crossed legs, amongst the damp heather staring into the sky. It’s raining he said.
The weather had been playing on my mind for the past couple of days. The eclipse had become secondary in our tour of the south coast but we needed blue skies if there was any chance of seeing it. The sky was grey and monotone and my heart sank as I realised that this event that I had so desperately been counting down the years to, may yet elude us. Part of me wanted to stay there. Spend the day on Bodmin then turn back. Why bother pressing on when there was nothing to see. But it was too late for that, we’d come this far. Better hurry said our friend, you’ve got a way to go yet.
We had no plan at this point, other than keep driving. We were short of time and although viewing the eclipse from the side of the A30 didn’t seem special enough, we had started to wonder if it was our only option. None of us knew Cornwall, we were driving blind just towards anywhere that would be far enough south, racing against the shadow that was already crossing the Earth.
By luck, rather than any coherent judgement, we found ourselves in St. Ives, a stunning Cornish fishing town where cottages seemed to balance, one atop the other around the steep sides of the bay. With minutes to spare, we parked the car and ran towards the waterfront. It was raining from an overcast sky. Any hope we had of seeing the sun had long since gone but it didn’t matter; the atmosphere in the town prickled like static. When we reached the bay we found thousands upon thousands of people who had all made this trip, pilgrims coming to worship this arcane and fleeting spectacle. They lined the streets around the bay and snaked up into the streets climbing towards the town. No one knew where to look or from where it would come. Would it whoosh or would it gently dim?
We waited – not for long but we waited – until the darkness descended like a curtain sweeping in across the tops of the hills and falling over the sea. The blackness was swifter and more profound than we had expected. There was no mistaking what was happening. Around the bay a great cheer of wonder and surprise went up and the town was illuminated gently by a thousand camera flashes as everyone tried their best to hold on to this moment. Across the swell of the sea we could see groups of other people just like us, bouncing and embracing and desperately trying to hold on to those precious moments of darkness.
We saw no corona, no diamond ring but we knew it was there. Above those wretched clouds was a sight of unimaginably fortuitous coincidence and we all felt it. If you’ve ever wanted to feel, truly, like an insignificant cosmic mote then there’s no better way than to stand under a total solar eclipse.
The light returned as fast as it had left. A switch flicked, a shroud lifted and the town was back although the complete return of the day was ambiguous. Is it still getting lighter? I can’t tell.
We walked up the hill afterwards trying to find a place to sit and eat and shelter from the rain. Everywhere was closed; understandably the whole town had shut up shop. Gradually though, waiters and bar staff started to return, unlocking doors and turning on lights, ushering in the waiting crowds. The need to talk about what we had witnessed seemed great. We spent the afternoon talking to strangers in bars, everyone reliving those two and a half minutes when the sun had disappeared, describing it to each other as though we hadn’t all been there ourselves. It just went whoosh I said over and over again and everyone nodded in agreement.