Eclipse trade `blotted out by brigadier'

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DOWN THE narrow streets heading into town and along the road curving above the sparkling bay, the signs in the guesthouse windows all said the same thing: Vacancies.

"I reckon I am 50 per cent down on normal for this time of year," snarled Dick Stapleton, owner of the Tolcarne Hotel and a hotelier for 30 years. "If I look at my private bookings I have got 21 people staying here - I've got that many staff."

With the long-trumpeted eclipse just a day away, the hoteliers of Newquay in Cornwall are not pleased. Elsewhere in the county, particularly in the south and on the centre of the eclipse's line of totality, hotels have been fully booked for months. But on the north coast things are different.

Paul Harknett, vice-chairman of the town's Hoteliers' Association, said: "A lot of people have been put off by the stories about the transportation problems and the environment they would find once they got here. But I don't think you can really point the finger of blame."

Yet plenty do, directing their accusing digits at Gage Williams OBE, a former Army brigadier who was contracted for 18 months by the local authority to co-ordinate facilities for the eclipse. Many believe that his predictions of what could happen if extreme numbers arrived in the county without proper planning have put off potential visitors.

"He should stick to soldiering. What does he know about tourism?" said another seething Newquay hotelier.

Yesterday, officials from Cornwall County Council said about 500,000 visitors had arrived, about double the normal number. "We predict that by the eclipse we will have 1.2m people in the county, around 500,000 of whom will be locals," said a spokeswoman.

But the prophecies of overcrowding, food shortages and even riots that were made over the past 12 months - and now the prediction of thick cloud cover tomorrow, leaving people in Cornwall with only a 10 per cent chance of seeing the eclipse - have taken their toll.

At his Georgian farmhouse on the edge of Bodmin Moor, Brigadier Williams, who served in Aden, the Falklands and Northern Ireland, was unapologetic. "The numbers we are hearing about today are on track with the predictions we made 12 months ago," he said. Of his other predictions, Brigadier Williams said: "I was pointing out what could happen if the county did not prepare for this event properly. Things have been done properly."