The Eclipse: Like a magician, nature presented 120 seconds of breathtaking beauty

Click to follow
AS AN experience, it went far beyond the religious or the spiritual. There was no mystery about the strange and wonderful event that took place in the dark Cornish sky yesterday.

It was, quite simply, a tiny demonstration of nature's immense power and precision, displayed with the speed and virtuosity of a master magician and, finally, presented as a gift to all of us who were privileged to look up and witness it. Just for a moment we were given a glimpse of the great clockwork of the universe and everything was as it should be. Awesome, yes. Fearful, no.

In just over 120 seconds of heart-stopping colour and beauty the solar system used the twin props of the Sun and the Moon to give us one gigantic wink of its eye, as our solar furnace was turned into a jet-black fire- rimmed disc. As it did so the sky, the clouds and the sea were painted with a succession of brief, flickering colours from creamy green to inky black. Time seemed to stand still as the huge shadow swept over us, turning day into night and drawing a single howl of delight from the thousands gathered below.

But, like all audiences to great acts of illusion, we were made to suffer agonies of suspense before the pay-off. For many hours, Cornwall's spectacular looked doomed to be one of the worst damp squibs of modern times.

Soon after dawn, the gloomy weather forecasters looked as if they had got it right. The western peninsula was blanketed in impenetrable cloud, covering the entire track of the first total eclipse of the Sun to be seen in the country for 72 years.

Massed on the clifftops, along the beaches and in the vast camp sites, the million or so pilgrims from all parts of the world who had come to the edge of Britain to enjoy the demonstration of light and three- dimensional spatial geometry had seen the Atlantic weather front moving in like a sullen party-pooper, and by 10am, when they should have seen the Moon taking its first bite of the Sun, they looked up and saw a black veil covering the sky all the way to the horizon.

But they had come for the show and to build some memories of a unique moment in their lives, and for hours they poured into every nook and cranny, every beach, every sacred place, every clifftop. In the streets of Falmouth and St Ives, and in a hundred villages and hamlets, you could hear the sound of a score of languages.

Whole families had come. Surfers from Australia, backpackers from Canada. Battalions of Japanese. All ages and social classes, the young and old, toddlers clutching their black plastic solar spectacles and pin-hole cardboard reflectors, young lovers, lager- swilling lads and lasses, amateur astronomers loaded with camera lenses - all absolutely determined to be part of it.

By 10.30 it looked worse than ever. A large squall was moving in from the west, bringing sudden freezing downpours when I joined the trek on to Headland Point, a 200ft hill that juts out into the sea from the holiday town of Newquay and gives a huge panorama of beaches stretching for miles along the coast in both directions.

Every foot of sand seemed to be packed, and out on the flat, calm sea scores of surfers and body-boarders were waiting to come in with the approaching darkness. But the mood was bad. Portable radios told us that the cloud blanket was thickening, and - worse - that there was bright sunshine elsewhere in Britain. We felt like guests who had come to the wrong party. Hardly anybody on Headland Point knew where the Sun was or where they were supposed to be looking.

A bunch of young men, stripped to the waist and into their third crate of Foster's, were upsetting a young mother holding a child in her arms, as they made obscene remarks to the hidden Sun. Next to them, a Cornish lay preacher, a man in his nineties, told them to hush. To our amazement he began saying the Lord's Prayer, ending by asking if we could see the Sun. And it was the young mother who looked up and saw it first.

To our east, and across the bay, the Sun - half eaten by the shadow of the Moon - suddenly appeared in a great hole in the cloud, turning the dark edges into a brilliant blue.

It was the beginning of 15 minutes in which the Sun played a kind of fantastic strip-tease act, vanishing for minutes among the clouds, and then reappearing. The old Cornish preacher repeated the Lord's Prayer, and when he had finished, looked up and brought roars of laughter by saying: "C'mon, you old bugger, let's see you."

At exactly seven minutes past 11, the final, stunning sequence in this Cornish day of miracles began. People first noticed that the hundreds of gulls who had been wheeling and squealing over the rocks below had suddenly gone silent and still. Then the light over the sea changed from dark grey to a brilliant light green and 20,000 people began to roar with a single voice as the entire sky seemed to open and the great dark disc of the dying Sun, with a single, thin slice of blazing white light on its edge, glared down on us.

The next few minutes cannot be described in exact terms. The speed of events and the flickering changes in the phenomenon were bewildering. Afterwards, many of us in that vast crowd on the headland compared notes and agreed roughly what we saw. But none seemed to see everything.

I did what I had been told by a hundred pundits not to do. I stared straight at it before putting on my black plastic goggles. I saw the disc now perfectly formed, and it seemed for a moment that the Sun had actually disappeared. Then I saw the flickering pulses of green and yellow and red, the much-vaunted Baily's Beads, caused by shafts of light slicing through the valleys and craters on the Moon's surface. It lasted just seconds, but it was unforgettable.

By now the seething crowd was uncontrollable. Children screamed and whooped, held tightly by frantic parents who were attempting to hide their young eyes. One mother, horrified by her three-year-old's determination to see it all, actually covered him with her body.

The lager-swilling lads and their girls were so far gone through alcohol and excitement that they were all staring right into the now savage white light as a single soaring explosion burst out of the corona to produce the famous diamond ring effect. It was as I looked at their madness, that I saw the effect this was having on the land and sea around us.

On the eastern horizon, a single strand of intense light began to appear. And to the north-west, the opposite was happening. A sweeping darkness came in a single, silent wave - as the great black spotlight, about 70 miles wide, came in at a speed of around l,600 mph. For a moment the light ahead of it bathed the entire sweep of the coastline, turning the houses and hotels along the Newquay clifftop almost into a photographic negative. The roar of the crowds at the coming darkness swelled up along four miles of packed beaches. The moving darkness, we agreed later, was felt rather than seen.

And then came the unearthly darkness that covered everything - causing the automatic street lighting to fire up and the flickering of tens of thousands of camera flashlights as people tried to capture the instant of eclipse, to give some point of reference to recall what was really a kind of dream. The noise of the crowds swept up from the beaches and across the headland for nearly two minutes.

And then it was over. Daylight, grey and gloomy, returned as magically as it had gone. The street lights flicked off. And for a few seconds there was total silence. All around people simply stared at each other, then laughed with the delight of it all. Everybody seemed to be saying the same thing at the same time: "Did you see that... did you see that... did you see that." Young couples embraced, children were hugged by mothers and fathers, and the old preacher formally thanked God for what we had received.

Slowly the bite of the Moon on the Sun began to recede, and looking out to the south-west where the great black shadow had headed, we could see nothing. Our Cornish moment had passed, and now the solar system's roadshow was heading out across Europe. It had taken just 33 minutes to reach us across the Atlantic from Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 10 minutes, it would be blasting across France; in 20 more minutes it would hit Munich, then on across Romania, Turkey, Iran, Baluchistan, Karachi and the plains of India, before vanishing in the Bay of Bengal.

The young mother who had been so upset by the beer drinkers thanked the old Cornishman, and we both patted the head of the blond-haired child in her arms. I had the sudden thought that she might perhaps live long enough to see another total eclipse in her lifetime - and that I would certainly not. But it did not really matter. The child and I, and everybody else who was there on this wondrous morning, including the lager louts, had shared a moment that none of us would ever forget.