Human threats replace cosmic terror: Total eclipse

Clogged roads, overpriced B&Bs and an invasion of New Age travellers, or cloudy skies and a celestial sputter: take your pick

How will Cornwall cope with the 11 August eclipse? Primitive man's response to a solar eclipse was blind panic. Tribes used to fire arrows towards the moon and make as much noise as possible to scare away cosmic intruders. Those fears still exist on some level; it's just that in modern cultures they've been redirected; the real threat is perceived to be human rather than cosmic.

With just a month to go, the promise of a cosmic experience has long been overshadowed by the nation's preoccupation with the weather, water shortages, traffic gridlock, inflated hotel prices and - horror - a siege of New Age mobs. In short, it will be a thoroughly British experience. Thermos flasks, portable loos, stores of dried food and cardboard eclipse shades.

It may be the biggest tourist opportunity ever to hit Cornwall - recently rated England's poorest county - but somehow the sense of panic is in danger of eclipsing the real marketing potential.

According to Brigadier Gage Williams, eclipse co-ordinator, Cornwall could earn about pounds 500m over a three-week period. Could it have earned more? You'd have thought a few corporate sponsors - Virgin, say, or Nike - would have pitched in to back the spectacle. Instead, marketing the eclipse fell early on into the hands of a few local entrepreneurs.

The Walker brothers, established businessmen in Cornwall, originally set up "Cornwall Eclipse 99" to create seven campsites accommodating some 400,000 visitors. Yet Damien Burley, who works with the brothers, says bookings have been poor.

"We've had to change our minds and so we're planning only three campsites." Meanwhile, farmers who set up campsites for thousands of visitors have only a few bookings, and hotel rooms are, in many parts, still available.

While half the Cornish appear terrified of losing profit, others still fear a mass invasion. The fears, rather than frivolities of such an occasion, are omnipresent - even if the bookings aren't. Still, traffic controllers are taking no chances: the M4 out of London carries warnings to expect long delays from 6 to 11 August. Months ago, Devon and Cornwall police asked the Home Office for military assistance to keep order, provide extra doctors and control traffic.

The anarchist groups behind the City of London riots are reported to be organising illegal "free" festivals near Cornwall's ancient monuments, while New Age travellers and Druids are also likely to attend. Police have begun to protect certain sites under the guise of Operation Obscure. It all makes local people feel uneasy: "I feel as if I'm living in a John Wyndham novel; perhaps you might call it Day of the Crusties," said Mike Rosendale, countryside officer for Penwith district council.

SUNSPOTS

n This will be the first total eclipse seen in mainland Britain for more than 70 years. Within minutes, there will be an unnatural chill across the land, animals will try to sleep believing it is night, and birds will roost in trees.

n Parents were warned to avoid conceiving by the Cornish Local Medical Committee last November, anxious that mothers would find it difficult to reach maternity units in the traffic. They are still warning heavily pregnant women to avoid congested areas.

n According to Nasa, the southwest of England will be about the worst place in the world to view the total eclipse. Only India and Pakistan, with expected heavy monsoon clouds, will offer worse visibility. Nasa experts say there is a 45 per cent chance of witnessing it through a clear sky. Fanatics should head for Esfahan, Iran, for a 95 per cent chance of a perfect view.

n Up to 12,000 people a day are expected to travel to Cornwall in the days leading up to the eclipse.

n Two Concordes, now fully booked by 200 passengers paying pounds 1,550 each, have been chartered to track the eclipse's path. Another 2,000 planes are expected to fill the skies in what could easily be the most congested day ever for the region's airspace.

n Don't rely on solar glasses; experts say there is no safe way to see a total eclipse. The only reliable method is to turn your back on the eclipse and use a pinhole projector to project it on to another piece of card, wall or screen.

n A celebrity gathering is planned at Culdrose, West Cornwall. Queen guitarist Brian May, who has a PhD in astronomy, will also be in Cornwall.

n BBC Southwest in Plymouth has its very own eclipse correspondent, Julia Peet.

n Plymouth City Council has advertised for an eclipse transport chief to organise traffic control. It expects an extra 36,500 cars.

n Hotels in Penzance and Falmouth are 90 per cent full with about 40 per cent availability in Newquay, Padstow and Fowey.

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