The sun will turn black. The air will turn frigid. Owls and bats will swarm in the midday sky. It will all happen at 11 minutes past the 11th hour on the 11th day of August. And if you think that's a coincidence, you haven't been studying your necromancy tables.
On Aug. 11, the last total solar eclipse of the millennium will sweep across a long arc of Earth, from the North Atlantic to the Bay of Bengal. The first point of land it crosses -- achieving totality from 11:11 to 11:13 a.m., local time -- will be the southwest corner of England, a storied peninsula of rocky headlands and rolling green hills that was the likely location of King Arthur's Camelot, but is now known as the county of Cornwall.
"For pagans, totality will be the most important two minutes of the decade," said Andy Norfolk, an amiable landscape architect and druid bard who is one of tens of thousands in this corner of Britain still practicing ancient celestial religions. They will gather -- at henges, quoits and stone altars erected here long before Christ was born -- to worship the meeting of the sun and the moon.
"Oh, yes, we'll have druids, necromancers [sorcerers], New Agers -- the whole sun-worshiping lot," said a smiling Gage Williams, a retired British Army general who has been appointed Cornwall's eclipse czar. "But they don't influence my planning, because most of them live here anyway.
"Our problem is all the outsiders who are going to come. Cornwall is a narrow cul-de-sac with only three real roads, and we're going to have more than a million tourists piling in here that Wednesday. About 100,000 of them will be eclipse-chasers from the [United] States, and what will they think if our county runs out of food or petrol or medicine or nappies [diapers]?"
In theory, the eclipse should be manna for Cornwall. It's the poorest county in Britain and is increasingly dependent on tourism. But when Gen. Williams first laid out his battle plan to the county council 18 months ago, the reception was less than sunny.
"They seemed to think it was a lot of bother," Williams recalled. He said one council member moaned: "The timing is bloody awful -- middle of vacation! Can't we get the date changed?"
But the orbital cycles that create a solar eclipse are immutable. Because the moon is so much nearer the earth, it can completely block the view of the sun if it is in precisely the right spot -- just as a penny held near the eye can block out a whole building down the street. Cornwall, accordingly, has pulled out all the stops to make sure the solar phenomenon is a solid plus.
Of the million-plus Britons expected to travel to the eclipse, many will bring their boats, jamming small harbors, such as the beautiful turquoise cove here at Lizard Point. The British coast guard predicts 100,000 small craft, the largest armada in British history.
A few hundred well-heeled fans will ride on two chartered Concordes that hope to follow the arc of eclipse as it moves across the globe. British railroads have added enough cars to bring 28,000 additional passengers -- and all seats are sold.
But most visitors probably will come by car, and that worries the eclipse czar. "We're urging people to put bicycles on top of their cars, so if the [traffic] block is impossible, they can still get through," Williams said. Thousands of road signs have been readied -- some meant for expressways hundreds of miles away -- reading "Expect Heavy Delays."
To save water, Cornwall is reminding its citizens: "You don't have to flush the loo [toilet] every time." To keep medical facilities available, all elective surgery planned for early August has been rescheduled. Williams surmises that there might be a rush at maternity wards. "The last druid baby born during a total eclipse grew up to be Merlin, and some parents might want to repeat that," he said.
Numerologists are analyzing why there are so many 11s in the time of totality. Astrologers are fascinated by the proximity to the end of the millennium. But since the millennium, a Christian concept, has no particular meaning to nature worshipers, they have other things on their minds.
Norfolk, a local druid who heads the Cornish Earth Mysteries Group, says worship services and ritual bathing are the traditional pagan activities during an eclipse. But there is also a suggestion in the druid community that people shouldn't observe the eclipse at all.
Cassandra Lathan, a local nurse and moon worshiper, argues that an eclipse is the coming together of the sun and the moon. "A god and goddess are making love," she said. "We have no right to look upon it."
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