The Way We Were: Eclipse hunting in Cornwall circa 1999
It’s 17 years since the sun’s brief daytime disappearance tempted millions to go west. Were you one of them here?
You can almost feel the heat rippling off this page and warming up your living room. Not only is it a glorious summer’s afternoon on Bodmin Moor, but you can bet a few temperature gauges on these cars will have been quietly creeping up, keeping their occupants on edge.
This is a familiar scene to holidaymakers from across Britain – the A30 might be the dual carriageway passport to a world of secluded bays, big waves and quaint pubs, but tiptoe onto its asphalt on a busy afternoon and you’ll be staring at caravans and campers loaded up with clobber for hours.
Especially if everyone’s attempting to get in on the sun’s disappearing act. The nation’s first total solar eclipse since the 1920s was big news, and its path across the globe meant the best chance of catching it in the UK involved piling into the nearest Cavalier or Escort and cruising into Cornwall. Inevitably, the skies were cloudy, which meant that spectators couldn’t experience the full effect, but the temperature still dropped suddenly and darkness fell not long after 11am. The much-missed TV astronomer Patrick Moore described it as a ‘strange, weird experience’.
Edging towards the front of our traffic jam is a trio of Volkswagen Type 2s, including one with the obligatory surfboard strapped to its roofrack. We’re not sure about the two crawling along in the inside lane, but the yellow 1976 model is still going strong – if ULO 619R’s your VW, we’d love to know about it.
Behind it are two rather more conventional 1990s family chariots – a Cavalier MkIII, which judging by the Flame Red paintwork extending through to its door mirrors, is either a GLS or SRI, and a pre-facelift R8generation Rover 400.
Feeling the heat two cars back is the occupant of a first-generation Fiat Punto. Six years after its launch it was still one of the roomiest superminis on sale, but barely a month after this shot was taken the Giugiaro-penned original was pensioned off in favour of an inhouse design, launched to mark Fiat’s centenary. Perhaps its boredlooking driver could have hopped out, wandered down to the MkIII Fiesta – which looks like 1996’s Frascati special edition on account of its shade of metallic green paintwork – and argued about whose 1990s compact runabout was best.
Taking this holidaying lark rather more seriously is the family in the Montego Countryman behind, with all manner of touristy detritus strapped to its roof. The bodycoloured bumper, black plastic door mirrors and facelifted grille mean this’ll almost certainly be one of the Rover-ised later 2.0i models. Not that this would’ve mattered to the frustrated dad driver, trying to work out whether tuning into that week’s number one – Ronan Keating’s When
You Say Nothing At All – is worth it for the break from the continual cries of ‘Are we there yet?’
A few cars back in the jam is that 1990s hairdresser favourite – what do you mean you can’t seen any Mazda MX-5s? The Suzuki Vitara made the idea of small, fashionconscious off-roaders trendy nearly two decades before the ubiquitous Nissan Qashqais of today. By the time the occupants of this three-door softback model decided to join in the eclipse fun the Vitara was looking very dated next to Toyota’s fresher RAV4 and Land Rover’s Freelander.
Cut across a lane – as many of these frustrated drivers might have been tempted to – and we see Caravan Club members out in force. Behind the Land Rover Discovery 300TDi there’s a Mondeo MkI struggling with a caravan considerably bigger than it is, and behind that a rather elderly Vauxhall Cavalier MkII, followed a few cars back by a Rover 400 and a Ford Maverick towing their exotically-named home-fromhomes down to Eclipse Central.
But we suspect the row of caravans sidling sadly in the lay-by belong to motorists who’ve had enough of the jam. They’ll have to get a move on. If they miss that total eclipse, the next one isn’t until 2090...