Eclipse of the Sun

Louvicamp, Normandy, 1999 August 11

Photo of our group

L toR Standing: Pete Kemp, Steve Tonkin, Bob Mizon, Tim Tonkin, Louise Tonkin, Glynis Kemp
Sitting: Siân Tonkin, Elizabeth Mizon, Lydia Mizon, John Mizon, Pam Mizon

Four members of the Wessex AS (Peter Kemp, Bob Mizon, Tim Tonkin and yours truly), together with our families, met at the Hotel le Dauphin in Aumale (a mostly pleasant 2-star establishment, suggested by Bob) with the hope of observing the eclipse of 1999 August 11. We spent the morning of the 10th, in convoy, trying to find a good observing spot, and settled upon a piece of high ground, recently reaped of wheat, at Louvicamp, just north of Forges-les-Eaux and only a few km from the centre-line -- this field had a good view of about 15 miles to the west, which we hoped would enable us to watch the shadow approach.

Being an out of the way location, we did not expect it to be particularly popular, especially as there were apparently a number of semi-organised events on local football fields, parks, etc. -- the French take their astronomy, and science in general, a darned sight more seriously than do we Brits, but that's another story... We arrived at our chosen site about an hour before first contact, only to find that it was well and truly crowded, cars parked on both sides of the narrow rural road, and about 500 people in "our" stubble field. We parked and unloaded ground-sheet and refreshments. The atmosphere was remarkably friendly and we made many acquaintances in a very short time.

Tim and Siân watch for the encroaching shadow

I have a grotty old 60mm refractor I picked up for five pounds at a street auction -- for all its faults, it is at least portable -- I set it up with a jury-rigged projection screen (ply-backed paper screen, extended on a bit of aluminium angle which was jubilee-clipped to the OTA). I was pretty pleased with the image it gave and, if I may blow my own trumpet, so were a lot of other people -- a number of people said it was the best projected image in the field (not that there were that many).

Just After First Contact
Just After First Contact (projection)

I contrived to miss first contact, but enjoyed watching the lunar shadow gradually eat into the projected solar image, and watching sunspots disappear into the shadow.

Throughout this time, cloud appeared to be forming as the air rose up our hill but, although they frequently covered the Sun, we reckoned the Sun would have moved beyond the cloudy region well before second contact.

Bob demonstrates multiple projection into the box of meringues

About 30 minutes before second contact we began to think about shadow bands -- we (the Tonkins) were intending to travel on to a Limousin gite after the eclipse, so we had bed linen in the car's top-box -- Louise and Tim went to get it and they laid it out on the groundsheet. Whilst they were doing this, I went across to an adjacent hedgerow to try to photograph some crescent-dappling -- almost immediately, thin cloud covered the Sun and we began to become resigned to the fact that we may not actually see totality.

Bob has mentioned the tip of covering one eye for about 15-minutes before totality, so that that eye is already dark-adapted when totality occurs, enabling coronal detail to be seen immediately. He had provided his family with "Long John Silver" eye-patches -- I merely stuffed a folded handkerchief between my left eye and my spectacles -- we drew some funny looks!

A few minutes before second contact the cloud cleared and we realised that we were going to see it after all! The sky to the west darkened, as did the ground, like a rapidly-approaching thunderstorm or, as I felt, like the inexorable march of armageddon -- no wonder eclipses had such a profound effect on our ancestors! As the sky darkened, I glanced up at the Sun and saw the most spectacular diamond ring -- For some reason, I had been designated to tell the youngsters in the party when they could remove their eclipse shades -- I remember yelling "Diamond ring" to the kids, but the next two minutes where a deeply personal experience -- I entirely forgot to start my timer, so I could get the kids to look away in time, but Pam Mizon had much more presence of mind and the Mizon cooking timer did sterling service) -- I vaguely recall discussing the identity of visible planets with Peter -- I saw Venus very brightly, Mercury less so, and the star Procyon. The beauty of the assymetric coronal streamers (Bob's eyepatch tip works!) and the three pink solar flares I could see in the golden fire of the thin ring which surrounded the lunar disk stopped me from diverting my attention to much else, although I did manage a quick glance at the surrounding copper-coloured horizons and I did rattle off a few photos.

There were some stunning prominences and flares

Many people have advised that one should just watch a first eclipse -- my idea was to have the camera already set at 3 stops under-exposed for inner corona and to rapidly fire off half a dozen shots, opening the aperture a stop each time -- maybe five or ten seconds worth. After three shots I realised I had been rotating the focus ring, not the aperture ring, so I eventually must have used about half a minute with my eye to the viewfinder. Now I know why the advice to just watch was given -- I have since found that I am not alone in having indulged in a bit of "focus-bracketing".

After what seemed like both 20 seconds and an eternity, another spectacular diamond ring appeared and totality was over. At first I felt as though I had been emotionally unaffected by the experience, but I became aware that I was feeling distinctly odd and that I felt uncommonly "wobbly". We had brought a few bottles of fizz to either celebrate or commiserate, depending on the weather -- these were duly opened and shared whilst various lengthy variations on the theme of "WOW!" were expressed by all and sundry. About 5 minutes after third contact the Sun was again obscured by cloud!

After about another 40 minutes, we packed up (having entirely forgotten to look for shadow bands) and retired to Forges for further celebration. Later, during a pre-prandial drink in the hotel bar, Bob told me that Johnny Mizon (8 yrs), when talking about his impressions, mentioned the "wriggly bits on the sheet" -- he alone had seen the shadow bands!

We are agreed in this family that it's already time to start saving for 2001 June 21 -- the only question is whether to go to Madagascar or to organise a trip to Nyamapanda, in Zimbabwe -- the land where I was brought up...

© 1999