Travel: The greatest show on Earth
Where better than magical Cornwall to experience the total eclipse of the sun, says Matthew Brace
Sunday 14 March 1999
Legend and historical fact have been interwoven down the centuries. Some believe Cornwall was once the land of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, who fought evil and injustice along the precipitous cliffs and coastal inlets. Others say the Lost City of Atlantis lies submerged just beyond its shores. Witches' covens were common and much feared for placing hexes on their enemies.
With such a reputation for sorcery and fantasy, Cornwall is the ideal county to be blessed with the magic of a full solar eclipse, one of Nature's most awe-inspiring phenomena. The cosmic event will plunge the county into temporary darkness for a couple of minutes at 11.10am on 11 August, when the moon passes between the sun and the earth.
It is bound to be a memorable day for the hundreds of thousands of people who will make their way south-west to witness it. The artists of St Ives and Lamorna Cove will be busy sketching and painting, surfers will be out riding the waves in the eerie gloom, and scores of ravers will be dancing on every available scenic headland and open space. Somehow, it just would not be the same if it was all happening in the skies above Milton Keynes.
Some mystics are predicting the end of the world, convinced by the coincidence of this rare event (the last one was in 1927 and the next in 2090) with the end of the second millennium. The police are thought to be worried about the breakdown of law and order through mass civil disobedience. Most Cornish, however, are predicting large cheques in their bank accounts.
Houses are being rented out for astronomical fees. One is reportedly going for pounds 10,000 for the week of the eclipse. Farmers are either ploughing up and barricading their fields to stop the masses encroaching, or vigorously marketing them as Official Eclipse Campsites to draw in the paying crowds.
It is hardly surprising, for as well as being one of the UK's most beautiful counties, Cornwall is also one of the poorest, with high unemployment and few prospects for future growth. Tin mining, once the prevalent industry here, is now dormant, as are several of its spin-off businesses. Farming has suffered, as it has nationwide, and fishing has been badly affected by quotas and foreign competition. Cornwall is banking on tourism, and major crowd-pullers like solar eclipses are rare. It will be the biggest tourism event in Cornwall for the next two generations.
The eclipse will be seen clearly across the whole county as it all falls within the width of the "track of totality" (the dead centre of the eclipse's path across the face of the Earth), from Launceston in the north to the Scilly Isles in the south.
Visitors to Cornwall have their favourite places where they return to annually, and they will no doubt do so again this August. Among my favourites are St Ives, with its whitewashed cottages and brilliant light, the Roseland peninsula with its gentle harbours and chugging motor launches, and Newquay and the north for the nightlife and the powerful surf.
One of the most dramatic spots is Lamorna Cove, a slim valley on the south coast, a couple of miles west of Mousehole. You can walk to Land's End in an afternoon, via Porthcurno and the submarine communications museum, and the famous Minack Theatre which clings to the cliff like a seagull's nest. Plays are performed regularly during the summer months.
Lamorna's beauty is spiritual enough as it is, but when bathed in the ghostly half-light of a total solar eclipse, it will be transcendent. The two flanks of granite that form the cliffs either side of the cove do their best to shelter the small beach from the elements, but the waves (cerulean with frothy, white manes) crash in regardless, throwing broken lobster nets and tarred driftwood planks up the beach.
The road down through the woods is so narrow and the car park at the end so tiny that the number of vehicles is severely restricted and it is quite a walk on foot - factors which might persuade eclipse-worshippers to settle for a more open, accessible viewing platform. This is a blessing for Lamorna folk who, while loving the trade tourists bring, also like to be able to breathe their own air.
On New Year's Eve, a Force 8 gale did its best to destroy the cove. It had been blowing for most of the day and by nightfall, as the villagers headed for the Lamorna Wink pub for a fancy-dress knees-up, 25ft waves were smacking the defensive wall like freight trains. The noise sounded like dynamite exploding underground.
At the storm's height, the wind raked the trees as it screamed up the valley, scattering the rooks from their perches. The fishing boats had been drawn right up the road, 200ft or 300ft away from the water's edge. The previous tide had left a telling warning sign - a line of seaweed and debris more than 100ft further up the valley than normal.
The beach cafe, which serves the best seafood chowder and fisherman's bake I have eaten in Britain, had battened down its hatches. The building shuddered in the gale. The Lamorna Cove Hotel - once the haunt of artists who came here to paint stormy skies and feel the sea spray lashing their canvases - stood defiantly on the hillside with its face turned into the wind and its windows bending inwards with every gust.
In the moonlight, curtains of spray rose up 40ft or more from the defensive wall like marine phantoms after each big wave struck.
Standing there in the full force of the tempest, I began to realise what the mystics were on about. All it would have needed was an eclipse and I, too, would have been convinced the end of the world was nigh.
Lamorna Cove Hotel (tel: 01736 731411). Cornwall Tourist Office (tel: 01872 274057). Minack Theatre (tel: 01736 810694). Penzance Tourist Office (tel: 01736 362207).
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