The Eclipse: Moonstruck Britain stops, stares and takes to the hills and beaches

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The Independent Online
WE LEFT work, stood in fountains, wore three pairs of sunglasses and peered at hazy images cast by pinhole cameras. We shivered as the sky grew darker and we marvelled as the birds did, indeed, stop singing. But more than anything, we can say we were there when the Sun went out.

From Land's End to John o'Groats, Britain ground to a halt as the Moon devoured our nearest star millimetre by millimetre. Not since 1927 had the alignment of the Sun and the Moon promised such a spectacle and we were determined not to miss it.

For some, the eclipse was total; for most, it was more than 90 per cent, but for all - even those with views obscured by stubborn cloud - it was an experience not to be forgotten.

Eclipse watchers crowded into town squares, sailed in flotillas off the South Coast and took to the skies in Concorde.

In Cornwall and Devon the cloudy weather let down the millions who were hoping to witness a total eclipse, but there was still a sense of achievement for those who travelled there - the sky did go black, the animals did fall silent and there was a chill, just as they had been told there would be.

In Falmouth, along the path of totality, thick Cornish cloud blotted out the view. Not to be deterred, watchers in an armada of more than 10,000 boats set sail to catch the best glimpse they could.

Along the coast a further 4,500 vessels were recorded by coastguards off Portland Bill, with another 1,000 off Poole, in Dorset.

The perfect view was available - but at a pounds 1,500 asking price. That was the cost of a seat on board two Concordes above the Atlantic, flying at 1,200mph along the Moon's shadow. Two hundred people thought it was worth it, and most could boast they had seen the total eclipse and the diamond-ring effect of the Sun shining behind the Moon. At 55,000ft there are no clouds to spoil the view.

Everything ground to a halt in London as office workers spilled into the street.

Traffic came to a standstill as drivers craned their necks for a view of the alignment - an enterprise which, according to the AA, resulted in a number of minor accidents.

Vincent Burke, of the London Chamber of Commerce, estimated the cost to businesses at pounds 100m. The chaos in the City of London was on a similar scale to the riots in June, he said, although - naturally - much more good-natured.

More than a thousand people gathered on Parliament Hill, one of London's highest points, to await the eclipse. It arrived with spontaneous booing as a dark cloud drifted over the shrinking Sun at 11.19, but the occasion was revived with a cheer as the tiny crescent of remaining light popped back into view again.

Not everyone, however, was impressed.

"Let's face it," said an American woman, there with her four children, "a 95-per-cent coverage is just like another cloudy day in England."

Skygazers in Birmingham enjoyed clear views of the start of a 94 per cent eclipse but, as in so many other parts of Britain, the spectacle's climax was partly obscured by overcast conditions.

Nevertheless, a spokesman for the Met Office said a swath of broken cloud running from Cheshire to the West Midlands had afforded astronomers a better view of the phenomenon than in many other parts of the country.

In the Lake District clouds flirted with the Sun for much of the morning until, just before the optimum moment, they momentarily set it free. It created a good eclipse for a crowd gathered among the sheep on the banks of Derwent Water. There was not the sudden dip in temperature experienced in Blackpool and some parts of the north-east coast.

Hundreds of workers and shoppers in Leeds were given a lucky break in the clouds. Weather forecasters said Yorkshire and Humberside were some of the best places to view the eclipse.

People gathered at the Headrow in Leeds city centre and, as gloom descended, they were treated to a good view of the partial eclipse between the darkened clouds. Others had a better vantage-point - on a plane from Leeds-Bradford airport which gave eclipse fans a view to rival Concorde's (though some 20,000ft lower).

In Northern Ireland hundreds of people queued to get into the Armagh Planetarium, where experts were on hand to offer all the background information eclipse watchers needed. As people prayed for the thin veil of cloud covering the Sun to break for the vital few minutes, office and shopworkers gathered in the streets of Belfast city centre.

However, as the time of maximum eclipse approached, fears that people were risking their eyesight by staring directly at the Sun evaporated. A thin layer of cloud filtered the strength of the rays, making the 87 per cent eclipse visible to the naked eye.

The North-east proved to be one of the brightest spots in the country to view the alignment.

There was sunshine in the region from 7am and the glorious weather encouraged scores of people to seek out viewing points.

More than 300 chose the feet of the huge Angel of the North sculpture outside Gateshead. Others went to Tunstall Hills in Sunderland.

North of the border the event passed by most Scots. Experts had predicted clear skies over much of Scotland during the crucial time, raising hopes that despite only 80 per cent totality in the central belt and as little as 65 per cent in the far north, eclipse viewers would not be disappointed. Unfortunately, they were wrong.

In Edinburgh, tourists and shoppers stopped in their tracks around 11am, while others made their way to observatories in the city.

In Glasgow, city council bosses allowed their workers to slip away for a few moments to see the eclipse. "It's the most disappointing experience of my life," said one office worker.

People in Liverpool fared better, with breaks in the cloud giving a good view. A hush fell on the waterfront as people gathered at the Pier Head to watch the partial eclipse.

Wales was also lucky with the weather, particularly in the south. Watchers in Cardiff had a near-perfect view of the event, while thousands more saw it from high points such as Caerphilly Mountain, just outside the city, providing an unexpected boost to the tourism industry.

On the South Coast of England, Steve Judd, countryside manager for the National Trust, watched the spectacle from its Saga Gateway to the White Cliffs at Dover.

He said: "It was absolutely outstanding. We got a clear view and it was gorgeous. It was certainly awe-inspiring and a bit spooky as it went cold and the quality of light changed completely. It was unlike anything I have ever seen before."

As the eclipse passed and daylight returned, visitors to a wildlife centre were treated to a dawn chorus by about 600 confused birds.

Flamingos stood on one leg and ducks stuck their heads in their feathers as the sky went black for two minutes over Paradise Park, near Hayle, Cornwall.

Nick Reynolds, who runs the centre, said: "When it started going dark they all started nestling down to go to sleep. During totality they were absolutely silent; there wasn't a squawk out of any of them. Then it started to brighten and we got a dawn chorus."

When it was all over - for the last time until 2090 - the eclipse watchers were jolted back to normality and the rush for home began. On the A38 in south Devon there was a 35-mile tailback by 5pm.

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