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POSTCARD FROM LONDON: A Missed Moment for Many

By Barbara E. Martinez

My heart goes out to the Cornish people. It's been a tough summer in that sublime resort area at the southwest tip of England. A former center of farming, and then mining, Cornwall's economy now rises and falls with the tide of tourism. This summer should have been a boost.

Indeed, the stars were right for Cornwall on Wednesday when the moon went in front of the sun and its shadow fell on the region for more than two minutes. Two million visitors were expected in Cornwall, the only part of England in the path of totality. But the story of this once-in-a-lifetime event is a sad commentary on the power of the media to interfere with destiny, even one as sure as the sun.

It's no wonder authorities expected a tourist boom this week--the experience of a total eclipse is said to be like no other--and Britain has not been in the path of a total eclipse since 1927. The world is in bright sunshine one minute then plunges into an eerie nighttime. Birds fly to their roosts, dogs howl and the moon is surrounded by a blue corona.

During the eclipse, I was in a London office building. Even though the eclipse only reached 97 percent totality here, I was awestruck. The temperature dropped and the sky grew dark. I glanced at the sun, peaking out from behind a dark orb.

The spectacle of the eclipse was fascinating. It is nice to see that a natural phenomenon can still draw crowds, even in a busy, modern place like London. From my spot on a rooftop, I peered into neighboring buildings. The offices were empty and the streets were filled with suits. No cars passed by.

But in Cornwall, tourist authorities, in collaboration with the media, scared people away from what could have been an experience of a lifetime.

Fearing that the eclipse would mean chaos or civil unrest, media coverage of the event has been overwhelmingly negative. The Cornwall tourist board trumpeted slogans like "come early, stay long, leave late," British Rail added 21 extra trains during the week and last November the Cornish Local Medical Committee urged prospective parents to avoid conceiving, in the expectation that gridlock caused by the eclipse would prevent them from reaching maternity units.

I read these reports and warnings, and almost canceled a trip I had planned to Cornwall last weekend. I was going for the beaches, cliffs and seaside towns, a break from the dirty city air. The reports made me think I would have to stand during the six hour train ride, push through crowds on tiny streets and fight for a spot on the sand. But I was fixated on Cornwall, and left for the coast with one of my friends.

"Are you sure about this, Barbara? It sounds terrifying," my friend wrote in an e-mail to me the day before we were to begin our journey.

I replied that we would be fine--we had reservations at a bed and breakfast, and would be leaving the county three days before the shadow passed through. In my mind, though, I worried that we wouldn't have much fun. During my weekend at the beach, I didn't want the hassle of crowds, or hassles with the druids, New Age Travellers and anarchists who had been called to the eclipse by a higher power.

The next day, as I sat comfortably on the train, I realized that the warnings had been for naught. The train's route ran alongside the A30 highway, which had been opened especially to accommodate eclipse traffic. We waved to a happy woman in a silver BMW convertible who was speeding along the highway with no other cars in sight. There was a jubilant mood among the other passengers in our car. They downed wine and beer and talked excitedly of their plans to soak up some rays before the eclipse.

Our ultimate destination, the small village of St. Ives, was crowded, but according to our innkeeper, no more crowded than during a normal weekend in August. Many of her fellow bed and breakfast owners still had vacancies for eclipse week.

In fact, she fretted that the town would see a loss because of it's significant expense in preparing for the eclipse crowds.

"We're O.K., because we're full," she said. "But others are going to lose a lot of money. This isn't what the town needs."

And as we wandered through the town, I realized how true this was. The storefront were all occupied, but they catered to the tourists. It was a one-industry town that had seen better times. The merchandising I had expected to find (I had a very American desire for an eclipse T-shirt, even though I would not be there for the big event) was not available. Aside from a few shops selling chintzy eclipse tankards, mugs and posters, I only found one selling T-shirts. And there was only one variety. The stores didn't seem to have the capital to invest in pricey eclipse souvenirs.

It turned out to be a good move on their part. Only 600,000 visitors actually came for the eclipse, and many Cornwall regulars stayed away. With newspapers warning tourists to "bring supplies with you, just to be on the safe side" and predicting that up to 4 million people would flood into the county, it's no wonder people stayed away.

Since the tourists were scared off, the food shortages, traffic and chaos failed to materialize. A lot of Cornish people lost money. Campsites that had been prepared to host thousands stayed empty. Eclipse glasses lay unsold.

And perhaps most tragic, all but the lucky few missed the chance of a lifetime. If I didn't have to be in London on Wednesday for work, nothing would have kept me from Cornwall, not even the warnings. To experience a natural phenomenon with a crowd of other humans, to realize how small we are and to have our world changed by the shadow of a heavenly body, would have made it worthwhile.

Barbara E. Martinez '00 is an executive editor of The Crimson. This summer, she is an intern in the Associated Press London Bureau.

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