The Eclipse - 11.11am, 11.8.99: Britain 1927 - Vivid spectacle held a nation in thrall

Steve Connor
Friday 06 August 1999 23:02 BST

Few people who are lucky enough to witness the spectacle of a total eclipse of the Sun fail to be moved by the event.

The last time a solar eclipse was seen on mainland Britain was in 1927, when more than 3 million people travelled north to stand under the path of totality as it passed over Lancashire and Yorkshire. Unfortunately the clouds spoilt the view for most spectators but Virginia Woolf was among the lucky few to witness the full spectacle.

"It became darker and darker as at the beginning of a violent storm," she wrote in her diary of that Sunday afternoon on 29 June. "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... Then it was all over till 1999."

Even the assembled scientists and journalists in the grounds of Giggleswick Grammar School in Yorkshire were moved by the drama of the event.

"There in the heavens hung the jet black disc of the Moon," wrote Dr W H Stevenson, at the time president of the British Astronomical Society. "All around its edge was a narrow, pulsating ring of vivid flame... one of the most beautiful of its kind that I have ever seen."

A journalist from the Daily Express was even more in awe of the vision: "I caught my breath as I looked up. The grey shadows near me were really men and women but they looked like ghosts. Their faces were dry and dead. This, I thought, is what it must be like to be dead."

Robin Catchpole, a senior astronomer with the Royal Greenwich Observatory, is one of those fortunate to have experienced one of the longest total solar eclipses this century when he was travelling in Kenya in 1973.

For an hour after the Moon made "first contact" with the edge of the Sun, nothing much seemed to change, he says. "The wind blew; it was very hot. Then suddenly everything happened fast as the last fraction of the Sun disappeared behind the Moon."

The ominous shadow of totality raced towards him from the north- west and everything went dark. "It was as though we had entered another world in the few moments it took our eyes to adjust to the deep velvet blue of the sky.

"Venus and a few stars appeared, but overwhelming everything was the black sphere of the eclipsed Sun, surrounded by the pearly gossamer halo of the corona.

"For almost five minutes we dared to look at the Sun, high in the sky and jet black," he recalls.

All around, to the north and south, the horizon glowed like a weird and unearthly double sunrise. "The wind fell calm and there was silence. The temperature dropped quite fast.

"Just for a moment I felt a touch of fear, until a jet flew high above us leaving a vapour trail that glowed by reflected light, reminding me that we lived in a rational world."

The last total solar eclipse in the British Isles took place on 30 June 1954, when totality skimmed the northern-most reaches of the Shetlands. Michael Leser-Cribb, then a young music teacher at Fettes School in Edinburgh (who later taught Master Tony Blair) was probably one of only two people to witness the whole event.

"I watched, in great awe, the entire process, about 50 seconds I think. It is very probable that a man standing outside a nearby croft and myself were the only people to benefit from a miraculous break in the clouds."

Such was the impact and memory of that day that Mr Lester-Cribb intends to be in a prime spot to see totality for a second time next Wednesday morning.

He will not be alone.

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