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ECLIPSE OF THE SUN; `We had seen the world dead'

On 29 June 1927, three million people went to the north of England to see 25 seconds of total eclipse. Virginia Woolf described the event in her diary

Virginia Woolf
Saturday 10 July 1999 23:02 BST


Now I must sketch out the Eclipse.

About 10 on Tuesday night several very long trains, accurately filled (ours with civil servants) left Kings Cross. In our carriage was Vita [Sackville-West] and Harold [Nicolson], Quentin [Bell], L [Leonard Woolf] and I. Before it got dark we kept looking at the sky: soft fleecy; but there was one star, over Alexandra Park. The Nicolsons got sleepy: Harold curled up with his head on Vitas knee. She looked like Sappho by Leighton, asleep; so we plunged through the midlands; made a very long stay at York. Then at 3 we got our sandwiches. Then we had another doze, or the Nicolsons did; then here was a level crossing, at which were drawn up a long line of motor omnibuses and motors, all burning pale yellow lights. It was getting grey - still a fleecy mottled sky. We got to Richmond about 3.30; it was cold, and the Nicolsons had a quarrel about Vitas luggage. We went off in the omnibus ...

There were also many motor cars. These suddenly increased as we crept up to the top of Bardon Fell. Here were people camping beside their cars. We got out, and found ourselves very high, on a moor, boggy, heathery, with butts for grouse shooting. There were grass tracks here and there, and people had already taken up positions. So we joined them, walking out to what seemed the highest point looking over Richmond. One light burnt down there. Vales and moors stretched, slope after slope, round us. It was like the Haworth country. But over Richmond, where the sun was rising, was a soft grey cloud. We could see by a gold spot where the sun was. But it was early yet. We had to wait, stamping to keep warm, Leonard kept looking at his watch. Four great red setters came leaping over the moor. There were sheep feeding behind us. There were thin places in the cloud, and some complete holes. The question was whether the sun would show through a cloud or through one of these hollow places when the time came. We began to get anxious. We saw rays coming through the bottom of the clouds. Then, for a moment, we saw the sun, sweeping - it seemed to be sailing at a great pace and clear in a gap; we had out our smoked glasses; we saw it crescent, burning red; next moment it had sailed fast into the cloud again; only the red streamers came from it; then only a golden haze, such as one has often seen. The moments were passing. We thought we were cheated; we looked at the sheep; they showed no fear; the setters were racing round; everyone was standing in long lines, rather dignified, looking out. I thought how we were like very old people, in the birth of the world - druids on Stonehenge. At the back of us were great blue spaces in the cloud. But now the colour was going out. The clouds were turning pale; a reddish black colour. Down in the valley it was an extraordinary scrumble of red and black; there was the one light burning; all was cloud down there, and very beautiful, so delicately tinted. The 24 seconds were passing. Then one looked back again at the blue: and rapidly, very very quickly, all the colours faded; it became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm; the light sank and sank; we kept saying this is the shadow; and we thought now it is over - this is one shadow; when suddenly the light went out. We had fallen. It was extinct. There was no colour. The earth was dead. That was the astonishing moment: and the next when as if a ball had rebounded, the cloud took colour on itself again; and so the light came back. I had very strongly the feeling as the light went out of some vast obeisance; something kneeling down and suddenly raised up when the colours came. They came back astonishingly lightly and quickly and beautifully in the valley and over the hills, at first with a glittering and aetheriality. The colour for some moments was of the most lovely kind - fresh, various - here blue, and there brown: all new colours, as if washed over and repainted. It was like recovery. We had been much worse than we had expected. We had seen the world dead. We were bitterly cold. I should say that the cold had increased as the light went down. One felt very livid. Then - it was all over till 1999.

From `A Moments Liberty - The Shorter Diary by Virginia Woolf, published by Pimlico. p the estate of Virginia Woolf


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