IN PRIMITIVE times, the reaction to a total eclipse was terror, panic, chaos and wonder. In August 1999, little has changed, writes Nicolas Barnard.
After the terror at the prospect of millions of visitors descending on the South-west, the panic when they initially failed to materialise, and the mild chaos when they finally did turn up: after all that came the wonder.
Standing on the roof of Roseland secondary school in Cornwall as darkness engulfed the land was an eerie experience which reduced some pupils to tears.
Roseland had turned itself into a special eclipse centre for the event, due to its on-site observatory run by local skywatchers Astronomics 2000. Also present were staff from the Rutherford Appleton and Daresbury Laboratories to run infra-red experiments - not to mention Sky TV, Radio Cornwall, Radio Netherlands and even Beijing TV.
After the gloom of the weather reports, students and scientists operating the telescopes and cameras were ready for the worst and an air of exhausted disappointment hung heavily around the school as the eclipse began. At times it was hard to tell where the sun was in the sky.
That only made totality more astonishing. There was no black disc, Bailey's beads, or diamond ring. There was just a sudden night darkness and frosty chill. Birds really did fly to roost. Cows did lie down, flowers close up. The lights on nearby clay pits winked on.
Those on the roof took panoramas of a skyline lit up all around with pale orange light. Others just wept and hugged each other. Then daylight spread quickly from the horizon - and two minutes after total darkness, the sun appeared from behind the clouds, a bright sliver. The icing on the cake.
"Exhilarating," said Aaron Draper, 16, assistant director of the students. "It was a primitive feeling," said Jim Geach, 18, operating a telescope. Both are considering futures in astro-physics.
The pupils' experiments were thwarted by the clouds - the Rutherford Appleton-Daresbury team got only partial results. "It's disappointing, but just being here was amazing. You could feel the difference in temperature," said Jo Rollins, 15, who had spent a year monitoring sun spots. Like the rest, she had camped in the school grounds for a fortnight.
Roseland head Sandra Critchley said: "To spend a year working on just one task with astronomers and scientists and using this equipment has been a tremendous opportunity. It's something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives."
Plans are already being made for the next eclipse - 2001 in Zimbabwe.