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The Eclipse: Amid all the hype, nobody told me a solar eclipse smells of fried onions

A DEATH notice in a national newspaper a couple of months ago went something like this: "Martha Jenkins passed away peacefully on June 12th, surrounded by family, and greatly cheered by the prospect of missing both the eclipse and the millennium."

Ms Jenkins went to rather extreme lengths to escape the fuss, but many of us will applaud the sentiment. Rarely have two dates - 11 August and 31 December 1999 - been so tirelessly and tiresomely hyped.

And now, one of them is over and, actually, I have to say that the late Martha Jenkins missed a treat.

At 10.30am yesterday we left the Treglos Hotel near Padstow - spurning the management's generous offer of complementary champers for those who viewed the eclipse from the terrace - and strolled down the lane to Constantine Bay, passing the house where Margaret Thatcher used to spend her holidays while she was Prime Minister.

Had she been down here yesterday, and still in office, she would doubtless have imperiously ordered the Sun out from behind the heavy clouds. Then we might really have seen something.

As it was, the wall-to-wall cirrus was a bit of a party-pooper. Although, with three pairs of young retinas to protect and hundreds of dire warnings ringing in my ears, I wasn't altogether sorry.

My friend Peter will be pleased too. He is coming to Cornwall tomorrow, driving down the M5 opposite the homeward-bound eclipse traffic, which seemed shrewd timing until he realised a week ago that he might actually be in danger, with eclipse-blinded drivers ploughing chaotically through the central reservation.

But back to the cliff top overlooking Constantine Bay, where, at 11am, despite the cloud, there was almost tangible excitement. Nervousness, even, as if we were waiting for an asteroid or an invasion fleet.

Hundreds of people had gathered, from New Age travellers to old age pensioners. And a shaven-headed entrepreneur with three nose-rings had set up a fast-food stall. Plenty of people have spent months meticulously explaining what solar eclipses look like, but nobody told me that they smell of fried onions.

Shortly after 11am, almost imperceptibly, it began to get dark. Followed, a minute or two later, by totality, as we eclipse-watchers blithely say. As darkness fell, the crowd gave an enormous cheer. The seagulls, always excitable, went berserk.

It was, as astronomers have been promising for months on end, a remarkable experience. Although I am slightly ashamed to admit that Mother Nature had nothing to do with the image that will live longest in my memory.

From Trevose Head to the north of us, to Treyarnon Point to the south, the gloom was punctured by thousands of camera flashes. Never mind Jupiter, which failed to materialise. Never mind the Sun's inner or even its outer corona. There was something strangely magical about all these flashbulbs popping in the darkness.

At 11.26am, the still mostly eclipsed Sun briefly and feebly emerged from the clouds, like an embarrassed entertainer taking a curtain-call after a sub-standard performance.

By then, a couple of high-spirited teenagers were wandering up and down the lane, chirpily offering eclipse-viewing glasses at half-price. England's next complete solar eclipse, as you know, does not occur until 2090.

Inexplicably one elderly man took exception to the joke, yet disappointingly failed to produce what would have been the least appropriate insult of the day - to "stick 'em where the Sun don't shine".