Cornwall fears a deluge when the sun doesn't shine

Mark Rowe on the West Country's anxious eclipse preparations
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The Independent Online
CORNWALL will be a bizarre place for a holiday in August 1999. The street lights will be on at 11.11am on the 11th of the month, more babies could be born than ever before and a vast one-way traffic system will operate around the whole county.

The first total eclipse in the UK for 72 years and the last for a further 91 - covering almost the whole of the county, from Land's End to Tintagel for 10 minutes - will bless one of Britain's favourite tourist destinations at its peak holiday time.

In a normal summer, Cornwall's 475,000 resident are joined by 3.5m tourists: in 1999, that figure is likely to swell by at least 500,000. The logistical implications are enormous.

"We're delighted the eclipse is happening but in some ways we wish it wasn't happening in August," said Sue Wolstenholme of the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust, which is setting up a working party comprising key agencies across the West Country in a huge operation to prevent the county becoming gridlocked.

Devon and Cornwall Police have set up Operation Obscure to try to avoid the traditional holiday traffic chaos being exacerbated by a vast, sudden influx of eclipse watchers. One plan is to install a series of one-way systems around the county, towns and villages in an effort to make traffic flow more easily.

But police fear the number of accidents, and crime, will increase in proportion to the extra visitors. "There will be people travelling down overnight, who are tired and who are coming off main roads on to small back lanes they are not familiar with, so we are quite likely to have fatal accidents," said police spokesman Sgt Alex Johnstone.

While everyone will be hoping for blue skies, the police have ambivalent feelings. "We hope it will be sunny," said Sgt Johnstone. "But holiday sun and beer often equal public order problems."

Accident and emergency departments will be on full alert and the hospitals trust is expecting to hire in doctors from other counties to meet a surge in demand - including from those who stare directly at the eclipse.

"We could get four times more visitors for that week of August than usual," said Ms Wolstenholme. "That usually means more than four times the number of accidents. People do things when they're on holiday. On an August day, A&E in Truro sees 200 people - that could be quadrupled."

One of the more unusual consequences of the eclipse is that it is likely to result in a record number of births. "Women tend to go in to labour earlier when they're on holiday because they've changed their routine," said Ms Wolstenholme. "Last year we had a woman go into labour while on a fairground ride. We could have a baby boom."

The county council, which is to advertise nationally for an "Eclipse Co-ordinator", expects a spending boom. "We are viewing the eclipse as an opportunity rather than a threat," said spokes- man Mark Nicholson. "It's a wonderful international showcase."

Among other considerations, the council is wondering how best to "protect" Cornwall's manyarchaeological monuments from pagan groups drawing symbolic meaning from the event. "We've never had anything quite this big," said Sgt Johnstone. "The only thing that comes close is the annual Runt of the Sun Beetle VW convention at Newquay."

Will the effort be worth it, given our weather? Actually, says the Met Office, people would have been able to see the eclipse on that day every year since 1993. But, warned a spokesman: "Clouds are difficult to forecast."