Astronomical Society of Edinburgh
Journal 40

The Solar Eclipse of August 11 1999

Gerry Taylor in Devon was not so lucky

We are often exhorted to use public transport, and for a journey down to the south-west of England I should certainly have preferred to go by train, or even bus, rather than drive for something like 10 hours. Unfortunately I could not book a bus at all; and though a place on a train to Exeter on the Sunday before the eclipse was available, the railway staff were vague about when I might be able to get back, other than to say it would not be before the following weekend. And when I mentioned taking a bicycle along, to provide mobility at journey's end, they lost interest altogether. So it had to be the car. I left Edinburgh on Sunday morning and had an almost unhindered drive, apart from a delay due to sheer number of cars near Birmingham. At a service station on the M5 I encountered John Rostron.

The general attitude was that the total eclipse was a Cornish happening, but a part of east Devon extended almost down to the centre line. It would experience a briefer totality than the best sites in Cornwall, but have more chance of clear sky if the weather should be unsettled on The Day. On the nights of Sunday and Monday I stayed a few miles south of Exeter, where the weather men forecast at the weekend a 60% chance of seeing the eclipse. But as Wednesday approached their prognostications grew gloomier and more definite: it sounded like an auction in reverse, the likelihood of standing in unobscured lunar shadow falling to 15% by Tuesday. It was added that the south-east part of Devon had the best chance of seeing totality. This may have influenced a lot of eclipse seekers, or perhaps a last-minute rush would have happened regardless. Anyway, my Tuesday trip to the south tip of Devon, though not great in miles, was long in hours, and I reached Salcombe to find there was nowhere to stay, either there or anywhere else nearer than where I had started from that morning.

Dawn on Wednesday was cloudless, but trouble was on its way from the west, and at Falmouth it was reported to be already raining. Would the weather hold till at least 11:15? As the morning went on clouds formed, congregated, and thickened. They were like the oysters in Through the Looking Glass:

And thick and fast they came at last,
And more, and more, and more.

From near Dartmouth a nibbled sun briefly found a clear space to shine out of. When it was nearly 11 o'clock a severely bitten sun showed a watery crescent through a less obliterating patch in the overcast. But all the time the weather was worsening, and the clouds loured the more for the weakening of the sun's light. I pulled my car off the road near a farm gate. The few other occupants of the site, having heard that animals might behave oddly, noted that birds were still aloft, and one or two people wandered off to inspect the farmer's sheep. In the west a yellow glow, like a late reminder of sunset, gilded a thin strip of sky a few degrees wide near the horizon, and in the seconds before the unseen totality daylight faded as if someone was turning a dimmer switch. It was easy to imagine that in olden times such an occurrence would have caused consternation. As it was a disembodied cheer went up that showed my vicinity to be more thickly populated than I had supposed. Fireworks could be heard nearby, and seen in the distance.

A total eclipse does not produce anything like the darkness of night: only the brighter stars are said to become visible, but the sky gives an impression of near blackness because the eyes do not adjust quickly enough to the sun's disappearance. Eclipses are also said to vary in how dark they are. This one did not seem particularly dark, and my impression, possibly wrong, is that I could have read during totality.

To be thwarted by the weather was disappointing, but I did have an opportunity of exploring a part of Britain I had never before seen. A highlight was a visit to the village of Spreyton. A sign at the tavern there tells that Uncle Tom Cobley, together with the other gentlemen commemorated in song, thence rode the hapless mare to Widecombe on a day in September 1802. This was a considerable achievement, since Tom Cobley was buried in the nearby churchyard in 1794. A lowlight, so to speak, in my tour of Devon followed a wrong turning I took through being reluctant to get my map out in pouring rain. The consequence was an unscheduled ride on a road climbing over 1000 feet in about 3 miles to the roof of Dartmoor. Still, with exercising as with eating, the less you enjoy it the more good it does you. And the view was good.

Gerry Taylor