Report on Total Solar Eclipse as seen from St Ives

11th August 1999

Total Eclipse of the Sun

Location: the terrace of the Garrack Hotel, St Ives, about 3 miles N of the centre line.

The weather was perfect on the previous day but on the 11th there was a heavy overcast dark grey cloud and intermittent rain. Three of us had set up our telescopes on the terrace just in case the sun should show through at any stage.

Because of the weather we stayed indoors to watch the progress on the TV until the last moment. Up to ten minutes before second contact the sky was not really noticeably darker than normal, considering that it was raining from dark clouds. We emerged on to the terrace just eight minutes before totality.

With about five minutes to go the sky was beginning to get darker. The light was a dark grey colour. About three minutes to go a pair of pigeons flew straight over us looking as though they were going to roost for the night. About this time we felt a gust of very cold wind.

We could see the sea horizon all the way from WNW through to the N coast of Cornwall in the NE beyond St Ives. Looking towards the WNW horizon, where the shadow was to come from, I could see a thin band of clear sky which was an orange yellow colour. Suddenly as I was watching this the whole extent of the horizon in this direction started getting darker completely evenly, and after about five seconds had gone almost completely dark, just as though a shutter had progressively and relentlessly come down. This was quite frightening to watch because I realised it was happening over an area of several miles simultaneously.

It was not possible to see a clear cut shadow come over the sea towards us, as I had hoped, but within a few seconds it was very dark everywhere around us. We could see down onto the beach and town of St Ives. There were people everywhere and many of them were taking photographs, I don't know what of. It obviously hadn't occured to them to turn off their flashguns so there was a forest of flashes in the dark for a period of a few seconds. Some of these were visible out to Godevry point on a headland five miles to the east.

Directly to the north was a narrow band of sky on the horizon that was a relatively bright yellow orange. This was an area that was outside the band of totality. Looking down to our left there was a pair of fields with horses in. The animals were clearly frightened because they were galloping to one corner trying to escape the menace. Somebody then appeared and held some of them by the bridle to try to calm them down.

How dark was it in the centre? It certainly wasn't as dark as a moonless night because we could see what was occuring in the middle distance without the benefit of any prolonged adaptation. It was probably like a moonlit night, but looked completely different because there was no direct illumination.

After only a very short time I again looked to the WNW horizon and was surprised and disappointed to see so soon the exact reverse of the previous sequence. This time the whole horizon changed from dark to the previous orange yellow daylight in the space of about five seconds, followed by the darkness overhead lifting. In a few more seconds daylight had returned everywhere.

The period of darkness seemed to last only about half a minute altogether instead of the predicted 2 minutes and 5 seconds of totality. I don't know if this was an illusion or an effect of the heavy overcast.

We never saw any part of the sun over the whole period of the eclipse. Nevertheless the suddenness and completeness with which darkness arrived and departed was quite awesome, and indeed a little frightening.

John Moore

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