We stay in Europe for this next article, about an event that occurred not long
before ConuCopia. 'The Final Solar Eclipse of the Millenium', as it was billed, put
on a spectacular show along some parts of its path through northern and central
Europe. But actually seeing the eclipse, for some, might have been less of an event
than just getting to where the show was going on.
Brian Aldiss called me a lemming ...
I wasn't around to see the 1927 Giggleswick show, but apparently it was quite a sight. In a negative sort of way, with nothing to be seen at all for a minute or two.
That was the previous total eclipse of the sun to grace the skies above the British Isles, with thousands of interested parties gathering in Giggleswick.
"Giggleswick? Where the devil is Giggleswick?" I hear you ask. And it's a darn good question. I even suspect that the inhabitants of the place ask it, too, from time to time.
About three times a day.
Giggleswick is actually a small Yorkshire village about fifteen miles from Skipton. And don't ask where Skipton is. Every map shows Skipton. Simply follow the River Aire back west from Leeds and lo! There's Skipton.
Giggleswick, with virtually all the houses built with smart grey Yorkshire stone, is best known for its public (i.e. private) school, founded way back in 1507, though many British parties will doubtlessly associate the place with Russell Harty, a television interviewer and personality of some fifteen or so years ago.
The village was the best place from which to view that 1927 eclipse. Over the intervening years I've read many of the accounts and seen several of the filmed interviews recorded by locals who witnessed the event. They all impressed on me how completely dark it became, how eerie it was and how the birds stopped singing.
Well, as I write this, it's a rare summer afternoon in Yorkshire. Which means that it's not actually raining and that the temperature has risen into double figures. You know the old one about seeing the Pennines? If you can see the mountains of the Pennine range it's going to rain, and if you can't see them it's already raining. Yes, it's a fine summer's afternoon and whilst the local birds were thrashing their little lungs out at 5.30 this morning, there's not been a twitter from them since. Perhaps they've fallen into the habit of a daily feathery siesta. All I know is that they stop singing for reasons other than a total eclipse.
Still, those old reports, churned out ad nauseum this year, stirred something within me, perhaps a latent dreg of a sense of wonder which lurked wherever these things lurk. When would be the next total eclipse visible from these shores? I just had to be there to see it.
And a couple of years ago there began to be little references in the media. Wednesday, 11th August 1999. In Cornwall.
Yeh, okay, back to the map. Cornwall is a triangular county stuck on to the south west corner of Britain. It's full of cliffs and sandy coves which have given rise to all sorts of stories concerned with smuggling. Start with Daphne Du Maurier. It's also full of old abandoned tin mines and old abandoned legends concerning pixies (or maybe even legends concerning abandoned pixies. Who can tell these days?) and it has its own language akin to ancient Bretton over in France.
There! What else is there to know about Cornwall? It can't be really important; it hasn't even a cricket team which plays in the county championship.
Stories had abounded about how the county would be vastly overcrowded with tourists and weirdos gathering to see the eclipse. Some six million were expected to descend on the county. The roads would be jammed, they said, facilities would be overstretched to breaking point, food and water would run out, there would be no accommodation available... the hotels had been booked up for over a year now... and other tales of doom and gloom. What little accommodation still remained would be at all sorts of premium prices. Holiday apartments normally rented out for £300 a week were being offered at four times that normal going rate.
When I told people I was going down to Cornwall, traveling eleven hours each way from the north of England, in order to see this two-minute event, they questioned my sanity. "You're mad!" they said. Every one of them. "You'll be able to watch it on TV," they said. One relative insisted that everyone down there in Cornwall is a crook. "They'll take your money on any pretext," I was told. "They'll rip you off. They have to make what they can during the season."
This meant the summer, when the weather is at its best and when tourists visit Cornwall. The county depends on its tourist season. People don't holiday in Cornwall during winter. I didn't like to point out to this relative that the Yorkshire coastal resorts depend upon tourism, too, and that their 'season', lasting approximately from June to September, is somewhat shorter than Cornwall's, which starts around May and goes on until... Well, I've visited Cornwall a couple of times over the years during the last week in October and have each time experienced a mini heat wave.
I asked Directory Enquiries to let me have the number of the Cornwall Tourist Board. The upshot was that I received a glossy promotional brochure from Newquay, the large, popular resort on the north Cornwall coast. It listed several million hotels, guest houses, holiday apartments, villas for rent and camping sites in and around the town. Phone calls to half a dozen of the larger hotels confirmed earlier fears. They'd been booked solid, many of the reservations having been made before Christmas. I moved down the list. The first hotel I tried had vacancies, yes, but would prefer not to accept my booking. I hadn't realised that my reputation had spread so far. Ah... yes... they normally depended on a weekly trade. Their tariff was for seven night bookings which included not only a full English (i.e. cooked) breakfast but also dinner. This didn't fit into my plans to see the eclipse and then return home as soon as possible afterwards. Other hotels confirmed the trend. One kindly manager suggested that I phoned nearer the date of the eclipse; if there were still vacancies a week or so before the event, there would be sufficient desperation for the hotel to take a short term booking.
Everyone to whom I spoke was hardly brimming with enthusiasm for their little show. "This damn eclipse!" I was told over and over again. "Why couldn't it have occurred during November, when we need the trade?" It appeared that there was a genuine suspicion that the well-circulated reports of over-crowding were deterring people from coming to the county. A week before the eclipse, I again phoned the hotel which had offered some hope of accommodation. Sorry, I was told, everything has gone.
It would probably be the same everywhere, I was happily informed. I rang the Newquay Tourist Board. Several times. The line was engaged, engaged, engaged. Eventually... success. "Thank you for calling the Newquay Tourist Board. Please hold. We are trying to connect you to one of our operators," was the message relayed every forty seconds. I held. I figured that now I'd got so far... After a minute or so over the half hour there was a different voice. A real voice. A real human, non-recorded voice. Offering help. Ha! Did he have a list of hotels still offering accommodation? No, all the hotels were full. There was no accommodation anywhere. I wondered whether this guy was on some sort of commission dependent upon how many calls he could rush through in the shortest possible time. He certainly earned his money with me. So it was back to the list of hotels in the tourist brochure. And back to hotels offering accommodation only on weekly terms. But at the third try... or was it the eighty-third? ... pay dirt. Yes, this seafront hotel could offer a room for only three nights. And at well, well, well below the price I had been prepared to pay.
I decided to let someone else take the strain and traveled by National Express coach, Britain's answer to Greyhound. The coach left Leeds at 9.00am and was due to arrive in Bristol at 2.40pm where I would catch the 3.30pm coach to Newquay arriving there at 8.10pm. However, I was warned, those are the normal times; there are likely to be delays because of the build up of traffic. The coach departed Leeds on time and whipped south, arriving in Bristol at 1.05. And the coach operators had kindly decided, because of the expected heavy demand, to run an extra coach leaving Bristol at 2pm. I was in Newquay for 5 o'clock.
During my stay in Newquay in the days leading up to the eclipse, I had to wonder about the local birds falling to silence during the expected artificial night. There do not appear to be any songbirds in Newquay. If there are, their melodies are drowned by the constant yammering of the gulls. Day and night their raucous screeching pervaded the air, herring gulls, black headed gulls, grey headed gulls, and, for all I knew, red crested gulls, terns, gannets, guillemots, puffins and crayfish, tended to drive everyone mad. Perhaps those would-be visitors who were frightened off had not been deterred by the possible overcrowding but by these damn squawking demons. In virtually every store I visited I was asked in a friendly tone, "Are you down here for the eclipse?" and in an equally friendly tone I replied as deadpan as I could muster, "Eclipse? What eclipse?" The store assistant usually laughed, but a couple of times he or she began to explain and one dear lady went so far as to tell me how Venus was passing across the path of the moon and that it was in conjunction with Aquarius. I'm sure she was right.
The scene in Cornwall was somewhat chaotic. There was plenty of accommodation available in the smaller hotels and boarding houses. Newscasts covered the lack of visitors to the county. Newquay, being one of the largest resorts, was featured constantly, with hoteliers bemoaning the fact that the earlier estimates of influx was certainly deterring visitors, especially families. Many regular bookings, made by families who visited Newquay year after year, had been canceled. There were, of course, fears that some of these families would never return.
Traffic coming into the county was reported to be light, though there was a heavier than normal amount entering the county during the night, obviously drivers hoping to avoid the forecast daytime rush which never materialised. In pastures and meadows bordering the road to Newquay were piles of plastic crates of bottled water, stockpiled by farmers who had been hoping to utilise their fields as unofficial campsites. Several special events, including firework displays, music festivals and rock concerts were cancelled because of the lack of advance bookings. One organised event did take place, the acrobatic display put on over Newquay Bay by the RAF formation team, the Red Arrows, this followed by a fly-past to commemorate the start of the Second World War sixty years earlier on 3rd September 1939. What's four weeks, give or take a few days? The fly-past featured a Spitfire, a Lancaster bomber and a Tornado jet. "Which is which?" I asked innocently.
Television review programmes continued to forecast the overwhelming number of expected visitors to the county. On the evening Newsnight programme, Brian Aldiss called us lemmings and declared that people were travelling to Cornwall for "a group experience," which remark was likened by the programme's coordinator to the hysteria surrounding the death of Princess Diana two years earlier. Personally, whilst I might have been a lemming, I couldn't have cared less about the 'group experience'. The fewer people around to distract me from the enjoyment and wonder of the eclipse, would have been certainly welcomed.
The build-up of traffic finally arrived in the early hours of the eleventh, eclipse day itself, but during the week the daily estimates of the influx were constantly being revised. Downward. Six, three, two, one and a half million visitors would be arriving. The final, post-event, estimate of those who had come to the show was 600,000.
And the Big Event itself, the eclipse? The sky clouded over. It began to rain. Didn't see a thing.
All illustrations by Joe Mayhew