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The Chatfield Eclipse Expedition, 11th August 1999

Expectations were low in the Chatfield Eclipse Expedition to Normandy because of the appalling weather of 10th August. The sky in England was overcast, and although it cleared a bit in mid-channel, as we headed towards Rouen conditions were even worse than back in Blighty, with waves of rain sweeping up from the south. The forecast for 11th August was pessimistic. At sunrise on the day, the sky was almost covered by altocumulus and ragged cumulus, but there were a few clear places. As we sat in a traffic jam in Rouen the sky cleared remarkably, and we were well roasted. Thanks to the jam, we missed first contact, and the eclipse had been in progress for about 10 minutes when we parked on a country road just outside Totes with a few other eclipse chasers. The weather had changed again. The Chatfields, after a little spat, set up their eclipse watching gear - telescope, camcorder, cameras, Mylar goggles -and began to watch, thinking they knew what to expect.

The eclipse expedition awaits totality - from left: Nigel Chatfield, Peter Davis, Chris Chatfield (Photo © Les Chatfield 1999)

By now the clouds were extensive altocumulus, with dark cumulus masses in the west and ragged cumulus fragments drifting under the altocumulus. When the Sun was about half covered the light became flat and grey, noticeably dim, and this slowly intensified as the Sun became crescent. A chilly breeze sprang up. As the Sun became a narrower and narrower crescent, the clouds in the west turned intensely dark and of an indescribable deep slate-blue colour, and we could see the shadow flooding over a high cloud layer towards us. "It's going!" someone shouted. Then - totality.

The Sun a few minutes before second contact. (Photo: © Chris Chatfield)

42 seconds into totality, and the best view of the corona. A single frame from a video by © Nigel Chatfield

The light went down as if a switch was being turned. It was like a late summer twilight with a glimmer of colour still in the west, but now the colour was all round the horizon, a red glow with green above, and dark cumulus masses before it. You could sense the Moon’s shadow filling the whole atmosphere. A pearly light was on the overhead altocumulus, and the clear sky between was a deep steel blue, contrasting with paler blue patches on the horizon. Then a clear patch overhead gave us a view of the eclipse itself, to the accompaniment of muted cries of awe. Then there was a dense patch, then another clearer patch, and there it was; the black Moon surrounded by the plumes of the corona north and south, like an orange ring of fire. Then a denser patch hid the sight, and as that cleared, a sliver of white fire appeared on the upper right of the Moon, and light returned. Although the Sun was still a narrow crescent, the light after totality seemed almost normal.

And afterwards? Many people say that a total solar eclipse is Nature’s greatest spectacle. I was doubtful about this because of all the other contenders for that title, but having seen one, I think they may be right. A total eclipse has everything; a celestial portent, weird atmospheric effects, and the sense of drama as the Sun slowly vanishes behind the Moon. The thing that struck us, though, was the sheer cosmic inevitability of it all. All the media chatter beforehand counted for nothing when the shadow came.

48 seconds into totality. Clouds hide some of the corona. Three prominences are visible behind the lower part of the Moon. Still from a video by Nigel Chatfield

My brother Nigel said, "The whole essence of the experience for me was the sheer scale of it, far beyond the comprehension of the millions across the globe who had turned out to watch it. The Moon and Sun were oblivious to the watchers below, moving in the same paths they had followed for millions of years. It gave perspective to events on earth and served as a timely reminder that there are things in the Universe far greater than humankind."