In the Shadow of the Moon

We got up early -- really early -- 3.30 am. I'd studied the maps and had found the best place to go would be part of the Devon coastline I had known as a child. The clifftop there offered wonderful vistas; and it was in the center of the eclipse path. But I knew that thousands of other people would also realize this would be a wonderful spot to watch the eclipse. I wanted to avoid the traffic jams that would build up as people flocked to the area; but, even more crucially, I wanted to have a place to park my car once I got to my chosen spot. There were a couple of small car parks there, but once they had filled, the tiny country lanes of South Devon -- most of them just wide enough for one car, with passing places here and there -- would quickly become choked. Not somewhere I wanted to be stuck for an eclipse. So after a quick breakfast we set off at 4.15 am.

We wove our way through the back lanes, avoiding all small towns and anywhere that might cause a bottleneck, and arrived without any holdups at my chosen clifftop parking place -- which turned out to be adjacent to a small, grass airfield and heliport -- at 5.45 am. There were a dozen cars already there, and judging from the condensation on their windows, mostly people who'd come down the night before.

The sun was just rising, a rich, red dawn, with mists filling the valleys and estuary below. Little did the sun know, I thought, what was going to happen to it in five hours time.

I had waited for this day for years. The only total solar eclipse of my lifetime in my homeland (unless I live to be 144). I had always wanted to begin this vigil with the rising sun. And here I was. Perfect.

The only thing that wasn't perfect (or so I thought) was the weather. Apart from the clear patch in the East, the rest of the sky had a thin layer of cloud, which, according to the weather forecast, would thicken to several layers by eclipse time, enough to obscure the sun completely. "A total disappointment in the South West, a partial disappointment in the rest of the country", quipped someone on the radio.

We packed our picnic lunch, and rug, and a few other goodies, and set off over the fields for the cliffs, which at that time were totally deserted. We choose the prime spot -- a high rocky outcrop, with a small grassy plateau on top, just big enough to lie down and snooze a little while the sun climbed and we waited.

Around seven o' clock a couple of people appeared walking along the clifftop path. Two others emerged from a tiny tent pitched in a little hollow in the ground nearby. It seemed a normal summer's morning in Devon. The only sound was of the slight ocean swell washing over the rocks two hundred feet below. There air was still, and the layer of small puffy clouds above seemed not to move at all. If they stayed that way, we might just be lucky.

Eight o' clock and we decided it was lunch time; we had been up five hours, after all. Half a dozen other people were now settled on their own chosen spots along the cliff top. And a second layer of cloud was moving in from the South West -- just as predicted.

After "lunch", I wandered off to explore our rocky roost. A little below us, completely out of sight from the top, I found a small outcrop, probably about fifteen feet square, and set in the rock face right below where we'd been sitting was a cave. Not a big cave; just large enough for two to sit in, and gaze out across the sea. And, yes, we would be able to see the sun from there -- should it decide to appear at the critical time.

By now several small boats were leaving the harbour around the headland. Sailing boats, little fishing boats, zodiacs; anyone with a hull was off to sea, to be in the best position for the great show. Before long, what had been an empty sea was dotted with hundreds of little craft.

And helicopters were landing at the little heliport. As more and more came buzzing over, I realized why. This was the best spot in Devon from which to see the eclipse, and no one with their own helicopter, or the money to rent one, was going to try and get here by road today.

I ventured out onto the rock ledge in front, and took a peek at the cliff top. Several hundred had now arrived. Voices came from overhead, where we'd initially settled. Kids were scrambling over the rocks below.

Half an hour later, a family of eight discovered our secret spot. Then two other families. Before long we could hardly see the sky from our cave. Looking up I could see that twenty to thirty people were stationed on the rock above us. There must have been several thousand now along this two mile stretch of cliff. Every grassy area, every rocky pinnacle had been claimed. What the country lanes must have been like by now, I couldn't imagine.

Helicopters were arriving from all directions, lining up to land. A stunt plane was looping-the-loop, diving, spinning over the sea. No one, it seemed, was going to miss this celebration.

Four hours had gone so fast. Now the first stage of the eclipse had begun. But we knew we would not be seeing it. Several more layers of cloud had rolled in. They were not heavy clouds, the layers had many gaps through which could be seen other layers, and through their gaps, other clouds. But only occasionally did all the gaps line up to reveal blue sky -- and the possibility of a glimpse of the sun. Nevertheless, the colours of the layers were most unusual, many shades of a silvery, slate-blue that I'd never seen before -- all reflected back from the almost flat sea below. Was this colouring an effect of the eclipse? Probably not; but it was sufficiently unusual to have many of us mesmerized.

Ten minutes before totality, and the temperature started dropping. It didn't seem any darker yet, that's because it takes a large reduction in light intensity for the eye to register a difference. But our bodies could tell that only a fraction of the sun's normal heat was reaching us, and a rapidly decreasing fraction at that. It was getting decidedly chilly.

Three minutes to totality and the light started fading. But in a most uncanny way. We experience the light fading every evening. But this was different. In the evening the sun is low, the light comes from the side. Now the light was fading while the sun was high. I don't know how to describe it, except to say it was different from any fading light I've ever seen before, or may ever see again.

The voices around had dropped to whispers -- many commenting on the most unusual nature of the fading light. Somewhere down the cliff a skylark sung briefly, a few seagulls called out. The light was dropping fast now, so fast it was noticeable from one moment to the next.

Then over on the horizon to the West, forty miles away, the headlands of Cornwall went dark. Over there, they were in totality. And the moon's shadow was rushing towards us across the sea. A minute later, it was upon us.

I never expected it would be so dark. The sea below was as black as at night. All I could see there were the navigation lights of the numerous little boats. Yet the sky to the East was still bright.

Suddenly I was glad the sky was not clear. The clouds caught the darkness, revealing the huge 60-mile wide shadow of the moon. At the mid-point of totality, the clouds on the Western horizon were light once more, those on the Eastern horizon were still light, and to the South, where totality never occurred, the clouds remained light. I was in the centre of a circle of darkness, with a distant ring of yellowish light all the way around.

And it was all happening in complete silence. One might have unconsciously expected an event of such magnitude to be accompanied by some other occurrence. But there was nothing. No rushing wind. No sound. Nothing. Just the moon's black shadow, sweeping silently across the land at 2,000 miles per hour. Eerie. Totally unexpected.

I wanted to say "hold it". There was so much to savour, so many things to watch, so many feelings welling up, so many unexpected aspects to it all. But the moon does not stop.

Just as suddenly as the darkness came upon us, the light swept back in from the West. Before we knew it the shadow had passed. The sea and land turned bright again -- even faster, it seemed, than they had just turned dark. All around me were smiling faces, and people whispering "I never expected it to be like that".

Later, someone who had been to several total solar eclipses remarked that it was the most uncanny eclipse he'd ever experienced. And all because we didn't get what we had hoped for -- a sunny day. You can see the sun disappear behind the moon almost any year, if, that is, you're prepared to travel half-way around the world. But to experience an eclipse from under these layers of fine cloud, was truly an event of a lifetime.

More Passing Thoughts

Date created: 1-Dec-05