Take a trip to the heart of darkness

At 11am on 11 August next year a slice of south-west Britain will have the rare experience of a solar eclipse. People are already booking up to see it. By Jeremy Atiyah
THIS TIME next year, an on-rushing spot of darkness will be about to overwhelm us. On Wednesday 11 August 1999, the moon will fall slap- bang between the sun and Cornwall. For only the fifth time this millennium, a total eclipse will touch the shores of Britain.

Those lucky people who have been in the right place at the right time tend to equate the experience (at the very least) with giving birth or dying. Next year, for a couple of minutes, our most profound assumptions about human existence on earth will be thrown into terrifying chaos. While the millennium will be marked by nothing more exciting than champagne corks and fireworks, the 1999 eclipse will darken and chill our entire world.

One year in advance, how can you ensure that you do not miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime experience? Assuming that the eclipse is worth taking a day off work for (and millions will think so), the question will be - unless you live in Cornwall - where do you need to travel to in order to get the best view?

If the patriotic thought of seeing the eclipse from British shores is what really appeals, the key is to get down to Cornwall, the Scilly Isles (or Alderney in the Channel Isles) by 11am on 11 August. Although the sun will be more than 90 per cent obscured over most of England and Wales, the area of totality (and there is a qualitative difference) will be confined to that far south-western corner.

Unless you plan to join what may turn out to be the longest traffic jam of the millennium, I do not recommend driving. Look for a train: although Great Western trains is not yet taking bookings for August 1999, their staff do inform me that extra services will be laid on and that bookings are likely to begin by mid or late August of this year. Call customer services for up-to-date information (tel: 01793 499458).

To be absolutely certain of getting on to a train, though, you can already book with Explorers Tours (tel: 01753 681 999) which specialise in following eclipses round the world. The company has chartered a couple of trains for the occasion, one from Paddington and one from Preston, and for a mere pounds 65 you can book a day-trip to the eclipse, setting off late on 10 August, to arrive in Penzance by 8am. Brian McGee, eclipse guru and owner of Explorers, says there is room for about 1,000 people, but warns that half the seats have been already booked.

On the subject of bookings, hotels and guest houses in the area have been taking bookings for months, though according to the RAC, most of their accredited hotels and guest houses still have vacancies.

Unhappy at the thought of squeezing into the narrow lanes and tea-rooms of Cornwall with half the population of Great Britain? If so, there are a couple more good reasons why you might well be better off heading to the continent to view your eclipse instead.

The first of these reasons is that Cornwall is quite a cloudy place. There is, statistically, only a 40 per cent chance of the sun not being obscured by clouds at the time of the eclipse. The sky will still go black and the air will chill even under clouds, but if you are travelling hundreds of miles for the occasion it seems a shame to miss out on the fine detail - the stars, the planets, and pearly fingers of light surrounding a black ball of rock in space.

The other reason for heading to the continent is that, from many parts of Britain, it is faster and easier getting there than it is to Cornwall. Trains from London to Paris, for example, take three hours - to Penzance they take five and a half.

Cross-channel ferries will also be a handy option. Le Havre, easily accessible from southern England, will see the edge of the eclipse path, while Dieppe will be bang in the middle of it. Travellers on Brittany's Plymouth to Roscoff scheduled day-time service on 11 August will almost certainly be lucky enough to see the eclipse in mid-channel.

Not that the chances of clear weather are better in northern France than they are in Cornwall. For guaranteed clear weather you may need to think further afield. From Normandy, the eclipse track will cut a swathe across northern France, shaving the outer suburbs of Paris, before heading into southern Germany and Austria. But only beyond the Alps, says Brian McGee of Explorers, is there a significant improvement in prospects. "There is little difference in the reliability of the weather until you reach eastern Europe," he explains. "We are running a coach trip to Bucharest in Romania, where there is a more than 60 per cent chance of having a cloudless sky."

Beyond Romania, the chances of good visibility continue to improve rapidly. By the time you reach central Turkey (where Explorers is also running a trip), you are very unlikely to encounter cloudy skies. After Turkey, the eclipse will cross Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, before disappearing over India. Weatherwise, the best place in the whole world to spend 11 August will be Isfahan in central Iran where the chances of sunshine are more than 95 per cent.

Before booking your ticket to Iran, however, remember that, worldwide, there is at least one total eclipse every year. What makes next year's eclipse special is that it passes through Britain.