Seeing the light

Solar eclipse TV image

Forgive me, I’m feeling kind of maudlin. Today’s partial solar eclipse has got me thinking about the future.

This morning, if you were lucky enough to be in the Faroe Islands or Svalbard in the Arctic Circle – where hotel rooms were booked up as long as seven years ago! – you would have witnessed a total solar eclipse as the Moon passed directly in front of the Sun, completely obscuring it.

The UK witnessed what is termed a large partial solar eclipse – up to 98% on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides – the largest visible from the UK since the total eclipse of August 1999. At around 9:30am, Thatcham experienced a partial eclipse of around 85%.

Those are the facts. The reality, sadly, was that it felt a couple of degrees cooler and a cloud-covered sky turned the merest fraction more grey. It was as if someone had tweaked the contrast and brightness settings in Instagram down a notch, no more. If you hadn’t known about today’s event, it would have felt just like any other late winter’s morning in the UK: chilly and gloomy.

I can remember the 1999 eclipse, when hundreds of thousands of people travelled to Devon and Cornwall to witness totality. I was at work in Oxford that day and I recall everyone in our office downing tools to rush outside with our special glasses and home-made pinhole cameras to witness the eerie partial darkness that fell over us for a few minutes. I remember how quiet it was. The roads came to a virtual standstill. Even the birds fell silent. It’s a memory that will live with me forever, as just for a few moments the world around me stood still, locked together in a shared moment.

Sadly, the 100% cloud cover we had in Thatcham today meant that our kids didn’t have that same experience first-hand, although at least they will be able to watch the BBC live coverage and YouTube videos to their heart’s content.

In a sense we’re incredibly fortunate. The Earth is the only planet in our solar system where a total eclipse of the Sun can be seen – it’s only possible because the distance between the Sun and the Earth is about 400 times the Moon’s distance from the Sun and the Sun’s diameter is coincidentally approximately 400 times larger than the Moon’s and therefore both appear to be the same size when viewed from here.

However, it’s an incredibly rare event. Before 1999, the previous total eclipse visible from the UK occurred in 1927. The next one visible from here is not due until September 2090 – a gap of 91 years. It’s entirely possible – indeed, likely – that one or more of my children will not have the opportunity to witness a total eclipse in this country in their lifetime.

That’s quite a sobering thought.

All is not lost, however. Partial eclipses like today’s are more frequent. We only have to wait until 12th August 2026 until the UK next experiences one on the same scale. (Hopefully it will be a clearer day – although, being the UK, I wouldn’t bank on it.)

Even so, that’s 11 years away. In August 2026, Isaac will hopefully be awaiting his A Level results with a view to going to university. Toby will have just sat his GCSEs. And Kara will be a fully fledged 14-year-old, with all that entails and implies. I’ll be three weeks short of my 56th birthday.

That’s an even more sobering thought.

11 years is a long time. What will we achieve between now and then? What will happen in our lives, and our children’s lives? What do I need to do differently now to ensure I look back after the next eclipse with as few regrets as possible?

Sometimes it takes being plunged into darkness to make us see the light. (Yeah, I know it wasn’t really that dark, but y’know …)

Incidentally, today is also the vernal equinox, the point beyond which we officially have more hours of daylight than darkness. Time to make the most of those longer days.

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