An enduring eclipse

Ten years ago tomorrow, on the morning of August 11th 1999, I had butterflies in my stomach and tingles running down my spine. I was a 13 year old school kid obsessed with astronomy and that morning the south west of the UK (where I lived) was going to be plunged into darkness during a total solar eclipse. The forecast wasn’t good and as morning broke the clouds above south Devon seemed impenetrable. We didn’t give up hope though and early in the morning my whole family, grandparents too, travelled to my school in Torquay where we had planned to observe the eclipse from. Our school was lucky enough to be equipped with a decent observatory where many astronomers had gathered; as we drove up to the observing site (the school playing fields around the observatory) throngs of tents and telescopes greeted us.

For most of the morning I fiddled with a basic solar projector setup to safely observe the partial phases of the eclipse. It never really ‘saw’ the Sun though. The few glimpses we had, to tell us the eclipse was progressing, came when the clouds momentarily broke, revealing a thin, ever diminishing, crescent. They were brief but exciting peeks at the drama unfolding above, which was revealed in full thanks to a television propped up outside the observatory, showing footage from an airplane above the clouds. As totality washed over us the clouds above us went dark, the temperature fell and for a brief moment we all enjoyed the spectacle of being in the shadow of the Moon. Around the horizon the sky was bright and, as soon as it had come, totality passed. And that was that.

I have many memories of that amazing morning, from the excited build up to the subdued darkness of the obscured total phase. Despite not seeing the Sun’s corona or any of the incredible phenomena associated with totality I have no strong memory of being utterly disappointed. In fact today when I think back about it, what we experienced that day was one of the most incredible & exciting things I’ve ever seen. The webpage from 1999 of my, then, local astronomical society is still up and is a nice record of the eclipse from our observing site. I just hope I can hold on long enough to see the next total solar eclipse from the UK mainland!

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