Can Cornwall survive the solar eclipse?

With a million visitors expected, England's poorest county has high hopes that this summer's spectacular will put it on the map. It could also be a total disaster.
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On 11 August this year, at 11 minutes past 11am, something very strange will happen in Cornwall. Day will turn to night and will stay that way for two minutes and six seconds. This is what eclipse people call "Totality". The last time Totality visited the UK was in 1927. The next time will be in 2090. For most of us, then, this is it.

The Cornish are expecting an invasion. There is even a rumour that the county may sink into the sea under the weight of all the emmets. That is Cornish for ant and tourist, and anything from 750,000 to 4 million are expected. That's enough ants for any picnic, especially one that takes place in the dark.

This is the biggest thing that has happened in Cornwall since, well, possibly forever. The first reaction was the only sensible one: panic. Thus, there was talk of turning the county's main road, the A30, into a one-way system and dire predictions that there would be no water, food or even cream teas in the land. Sewage would overflow, and traffic would be gridlocked. GPs asked women to avoid getting pregnant in November. The fewer women rushing to hospital on 11 August, the better. This inspired some to do the opposite. "Oh yes, there was an immense love-in," says Gage Williams, retired brigadier and county eclipse co-ordinator.

Gage Williams is a man whose time has come. He is the antidote to panic. There is a rumour that the eclipse will not happen without his say-so. He leads me through his presentation on his laptop computer. It is impressive, with swooping lines showing the eclipse's path from off the coast of Nova Scotia to the Bay of Bengal. Two fully-booked Concordes are following it the whole way. Now that is Totality.

Back here on Planet Cornwall, however, there is a 55 per cent chance that it won't even be a clear day. Williams frowns. Clouds, he says, will be fine because you can see the darkness racing towards you over them. But a rainy, foggy, horrible day would not be a disaster. He shrugs. If he worried about such things, he would be a wreck.

Instead, he is crisp and full of memorable phrases. For instance, he talks of VFRs. This turns out to be Visiting Friends and Relatives. "You never know how many will come!" He has a clipped voice that is not quite a bark, but is certainly that of a leader. He does not like to talk about road rage or even eclipse rage. Instead he talks of "friction". He is 52 and left the army two years ago. He sees this as a military exercise and claims there are no problems, only challenges. Leadership, he says, is mostly about enthusiasm.

This is handy because he's got loads of it. What he has very little of is information. Numbers are crucial, and yet they are all so uncertain. Some say that 4 million could visit. In fact, that is what Matthew Taylor MP told Parliament in November (he is calling for an Eclipse Minister). But Gage Williams says that Matthew Taylor is a Lib-Dem, and therefore understandably liberal with his estimates. He thinks it will be more like 750,000 to 1.25 million, and has a theory that "numbers equal spare capacity on roads multiplied by time". He spends a lot of time explaining this and produces another chart, this one a pyramid, showing how people will come for one week, two weeks or longer. Finally, however, we agree that actually he does not know.

History is on the side of the panickers. In 1927, 3 million made their way to the north to see 25 seconds of Totality. It remains the biggest ever recorded movement of people by train in one day in the UK. Brigadier Williams does know that some 6,000 journalists are already scheduled to come, as are some 100,000 dedicated eclipse watchers (scientists, mystics etc.) from around the world.

Brigadier Williams does not want Cornwall to blow this opportunity. He doesn't want eclipse rage or greed (he is Cornish, and says it is in their DNA) to spoil it. This is the county's big chance for fame and fortune. This is a poor area and is about to be declared as such officially by Europe. But holiday-makers spend their money - pounds 48 per day is one figure flying around - and that is a lot of cash even if a mere 1 million turn up. And if they like what they find, they may return.

"This will put Cornwall on the world map," he says. He wonders why the eclipse has not attracted big sponsors. "It is the biggest event of the year but where is Nike, Coca Cola, Rupert Murdoch? This is the kind of thing that a megalomaniac would love to grab.

"Then you've got some natural sponsors. Guinness. This thing looks just like a pint of Guinness!" He points to a picture of Totality and I can't help but notice he is right. Another wild idea - that could be a sensible one. But that is his job. He talks about sewage, and how to find extra milk tankers, and how to ship in bottled water. Talking to the former brigadier is mind-boggling, but that is because the eclipse and Cornwall are mind-boggling.

Take Ian Walker. I find him up the road at the Monkey Tree Holiday Park. He and his two brothers are in the holiday business and have set up Cornwall Eclipse 99 to create temporary villages for the big moment. They are campsites, except for the fact they will have their own sewage, water, shops etc. "I would call them townships, except everyone would think of Soweto," he says.

He then tells me that he is looking for military types to help run them, because they know about tented villages holding from 10,000 to 20,000 people. Experience as in what, I wonder. Bosnia? He nods. Except this, of course, will be Bosnia with pasties galore, and a county show atmosphere. There will be pubs, shops, amenities and even a place to kick a football around.

Mr Walker also has loads of enthusiasm. "This is the traditional Cornish holiday plus the millennium party with Totality on top of it!" he says. I say that where I live, in Kent, there will be a partial eclipse. Mr Walker looks pained. "An awareness is building in the national population about Totality. We will get this incredible two and a half hours around the actual event. The temperature drops and the mist comes in. There is a diamond ring effect and a wave effect when the surface of the earth looks like a swimming pool." He stops and then says: "Frankly, partial is watching the local football team play in your local park. Totality is watching the World Cup Final."

Mr Walker is a good salesman. At the moment, he is taking bookings for seven sites. But, if the demand is there, he could have 20 sites. The campsites may have themes: there could be ones for surfers, families, scientists, people with planes. It is an expensive business. He says the capital outlay for, say, 15 sites would be about pounds 35m. He points to a Glastonbury poster. Its infrastructure only had to last three days; his campsites need to last weeks.

We fall to discussing toilets, as you do. He says that portable loos are simply not the answer. "For starters, we would need in the region of 46,000 of them - but you cannot expect the British public to live on portable loos for two weeks. All of ours will be proper flush."

If Gage Williams is out to organise the eclipse, and Mr Walker is out to sell it, then Ed Prynn is just going to enjoy it. Mr Prynn is the self- appointed Arch Druid of Cornwall, and tells me that I cannot miss his house because there is a Stonehenge in the front garden. He is right, though he lives down a lane in the village of St Merryn that you could just as well abseil as drive down. Ed is 62, with longish white hair, and a thick Cornish accent. He sometimes gets so excited that he starts to shout in mid-sentence.

He can be confusing. At one point, he admits that he still goes to the Methodist chapel. What kind of Druid is he? He says there are no rules. His partner, Glynis Kent, says she thinks she might be more of a Druid than he and that he just likes to dance around the stones with the High Priestesses. "I'm not ashamed. Ann, you can write this in your paper!" says Ed. "I've got no gates or anything secret here. Sometimes we do take our clothes off. We call it sky cladding. People ask us what we do then. Nothing! Carry on the same as usual." Which is? "Dancing. And drums. Our band is called Eddie Hardrock and the Mystics!" He laughs. Does he sing then? "No, we can't sing. We chant."

Druid plans are somewhat sketchy for 11 August. Mr Prynn is planning a carnival-type thing with some weddings, lots of chanting and dancing round the stones. He and Glynis have a new stone to erect on the day. It is down at his son's place. It weighs three tons, is made of granite, and came from a quarry up on Bodmin Moor. They are getting up at 5am to make sure it gets put in its place, which is right in front of the picture window. I ask if it will have a name, because the seven huge stones in his henge are all named after women in his life (including Great Aunty Hilda). He says that it won't, but that it will be a stone for thinking about special people in your life.

He and Glynis are excited because they know of no total eclipse where people have had a henge to dance round. They want anyone who wants to, to come and enjoy a day of dancing, chanting and doing the Conga. What? "That's the snake dance. They pinched it from the ancients," says Ed.

Later on we get to discussing how much organisation is involved preparing for this eclipse. "There is no need to worry. If you've got enough nerve to print it, I'll tell you that there are people waiting on the other side to step in." Who? I ask. Like Elvis? "Sir Winston," says Ed. "It's going to run like a dream."