On 11 August this year, at 11 minutes past 11am, something very strange will happen in Cornwall. Day will turn to night and will stay that way for two minutes and six seconds. This is what eclipse people call "Totality". The last time Totality visited the UK was in 1927. The next time will be in 2090. For most of us, then, this is it.
The Cornish are expecting an invasion. There is even a rumour that the county may sink into the sea under the weight of all the emmets. That is Cornish for ant and tourist, and anything from 750,000 to 4 million are expected. That's enough ants for any picnic, especially one that takes place in the dark.
This is the biggest thing that has happened in Cornwall since, well, possibly forever. The first reaction was the only sensible one: panic. Thus, there was talk of turning the county's main road, the A30, into a one-way system and dire predictions that there would be no water, food or even cream teas in the land. Sewage would overflow, and traffic would be gridlocked. GPs asked women to avoid getting pregnant in November. The fewer women rushing to hospital on 11 August, the better. This inspired some to do the opposite. "Oh yes, there was an immense love-in," says Gage Williams, retired brigadier and county eclipse co-ordinator. Gage Williams is a man whose time has come. He is the antidote to panic. There is a rumour that the eclipse will not happen without his say-so. He leads me through his presentation on his laptop computer. It is impressive, with swooping lines showing the eclipse's path from off the coast of Nova Scotia to the Bay of Bengal. Two fully-booked Concordes are following it the whole way. Now that is Totality. Back here on Planet Cornwall, however, there is a 55 per cent chance that it won't even be a clear day. Williams frowns. Clouds, he says, will be fine because you can see the darkness racing towards you over them. But a rainy, foggy, horrible day would not be a disaster. He shrugs. If he worried about such things, he would be a wreck. Instead, he is crisp and full of memorable phrases. For instance, he talks of VFRs. This turns out to be Visiting Friends and Relatives. "You never know how many will come!" He has a clipped voice that is not quite a bark, but is certainly that of a leader. He does not like to talk about road rage or even eclipse rage. Instead he talks of "friction". He is 52 and left the army two years ago. He sees this as a military exercise and claims there are no problems, only challenges. Leadership, he says, is mostly about enthusiasm. This is handy because he's got loads of it. What he has very little of is information. Numbers are crucial, and yet they are all so uncertain. Some say that 4 million could visit. In fact, that is what Matthew Taylor MP told Parliament in November (he is calling for an Eclipse Minister). But Gage Williams says that Matthew Taylor is a Lib-Dem, and therefore understandably liberal with his estimates. He thinks it will be more like 750,000 to 1.25 million, and has a theory that "numbers equal spare capacity on roads multiplied by time". He spends a lot of time explaining this and produces another chart, this one a pyramid, showing how people will come for one week, two weeks or longer. Finally, however, we agree that actually he does not know. History is on the side of the panickers. In 1927, 3 million made their way to the north to see 25 seconds of Totality. It remains the biggest ever recorded movement of people by train in one day in the UK. Brigadier Williams does know that some 6,000 journalists are already scheduled to come, as are some 100,000 dedicated eclipse watchers (scientists, mystics etc.) from around the world. Brigadier Williams does not want Cornwall to blow this opportunity. He doesn't want eclipse rage or greed (he is Cornish, and says it is in their DNA) to spoil it. This is the county's big chance for fame and fortune. …