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Time Passes

A total solar eclipse

    In June, 1954, towards the end of my second year in infants' school, we pupils of Miss Heaney's class were encouraged to bring in a spoiled photographic negative. We were told that, if we did, we'd be able to see something special; an eclipse of the sun.

      I should think few of us had any idea what an eclipse was. I certainly didn't. It sounded like fun, so I went home and had my parents unearth the required negative. It was a casualty from a black and white film. Most family photographs were monochrome at the time and a fair proportion of the pictures didn't 'come out'. It all sounds very casual in comparison with today's cautious emphasis on eye safety. Perhaps this was so, in fact I'm sure it was the case; I can only tell you the things were.

      At all events, I was proud to be marched out to the playground at the due time, bearing a parent-supplied rather than teacher-supplied negative. We duly looked skywards as instructed. I was disappointed; all I saw was the sun with a big chunk missing from it. So what? Still, it had given me ten minutes out of the classroom.


I didn't know then I was seeing a rare event. Still less did I know that this eclipse would have been total from the Shetland Isles. I didn't even know then there was such a place. Shetland ponies were something I learned to marvel at some years later. Only gradually, over the next few years, did I start to become more aware of what was going on above my head in the sky. This was largely because the favourite pub of an uncle of mine was called 'The Plough'. I was surprised to find this had to do with stars rather than farm equipment. I waited for my next chance. It was to be a long time in coming.

      There was to be no total eclipse to be seen from the British Isles for forty-five more years. This is not really so long a period when you consider there had been no total eclipse visible from anywhere in the the British Isles between 1724 and 1925. We won't see the next until 2090. Our descendants might see it, I should say.

      In August 1999, totality was to occur in a few places in the south-west. This was enough for me. With my family, I made plans to spend a week in Cornwall. I've written elsewhere about this, so won't repeat myself here, but was interested to see I ended what I wrote then by saying 'I'm already making plans to see the next one. It will be in 2015, and will be visible from the Faroe Islands. And I don't care if it does rain.'

      Bold words. At the time my intention was indeed to travel to the Faroes sixteen years later. But my circumstances altered drastically in the intervening years. Time passes. It would have been more difficult, though not impossible, for me to make the journey. In the event I'm glad I didn't. There was cloud cover in the Faroes, whilst it was dry and sunny at my home in South Wales. The Faroes on 20th March, 2015 would have been a re-run, if a colder, drier one, of Penzance on 11th August, 1999.

      I can't help thinking that the 2015 partial eclipse I saw from my home was in many ways an adult version of the 1954 experience. So this is what I want to focus upon now.

      My preparations for the 2015 were far less rigorous than they had been for Penzance in 1999. In truth I did nothing until a few days before the eclipse date, when clear skies appeared above South Wales and good weather was forecast. I knew we'd bought at least one pair of Mylar glasses for Penzance. Did we still have them? It took me an hour of rooting around in some unlikely places but, slightly to my surprise, I will admit, I found several pairs of glasses. 20th March dawned bright and clear. We were set.

      On 20th March Suki and I placed a few chairs in front of our house, together with a colander which had been recommended as 'last resort' viewing by an enthusiastic television presenter. It seemed an odd idea to me at the time and so it proved in attempted use. Perhaps our colander came with the wrong sort of holes.


    The spare pairs of glasses we lent to neighbours were all used well, including those we gave to the man next door, who is 90, and his 85-year-old wife. The time shortly before the 'first contact' of the eclipse coincided with the maximum run of traffic (pedestrian and vehicular) to the nearby school. We noticed, with some disappointment, that there wasn't a single curious glance upwards. I hope this had nothing to do with pupils being too anxious to arrive in the classrooms to get their heads down in search of favourable statistics. For ourselves, we waited and watched. We didn't have to wait long because, a few minutes after the television announced this could be seen in Newlyn, Cornwall, we watched fascinated through our glasses as a tiny chunk of the top right hand side of the sun was apparently eaten away. No wonder the Ancients attributed this event to the actions of a greedy dragon.

      At a leisurely pace, more and more of the sun disappeared from view. When about half of it had gone we noticed that other neighbours of ours, whom we knew to be enthusiastic eclipse chasers (they'd seen ten from various parts of the world), had a sizeable telescope in their front garden. We walked down the road and took a peek through the (filtered) telescope at the sun. It was interesting to see a single sunspot, but in truth I was happy to get back to base and to our more modest equipment.

      Shortly before the maximum eclipse (90% from South Wales) arrived, so did our postman. We offered him a view with our glasses but he was anxious to press on with his round. The new post office must have an effective work-inducement scheme.

      As the eclipse reached its peak, the temperature grew distinctly chillier and the sky, although still clear, took on a twilit tone for a minute or two. We continued to watch as slowly a smaller portion of the sun became obscured and the sky was returned to its normal hue. Then we heard from the television we'd left running in the lounge, that totality was shortly due above the Faroes. Pictures could be seen from an aircraft they'd sent up especially for the purpose.

      So we watched these, trying to ignore the excitable commentators. Solar flares, together with the phenomena known as 'Bailey's Beads' and 'The Diamond Ring', could be seen clearly. The former are fragments of sunlight which escape from behind the rugged shadow of the moon. The latter is the more dramatic sight, lasting but a second, when the sun peeps back into view as totality ends. There is only one word to describe what can be seen, and that is beautiful. Still, I'd sacrifice a television picture of a total eclipse for a live viewing of a partial one anytime.

      I won't end this piece on a perhaps over-bold statement. What I would like to say, though, is that, following a few smaller ones in intervening years, a respectable partial eclipse is due in August, 2026. If I'm around then, at least I should know where to find the Mylar glasses!

Calendars: 1954 and 2015
Eclpises in 1952, 1999, and 2015
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