Eclipse 2

Although there are many solar eclipses, there have been very few total solar eclipses visible from Northwest England

There were none between 1598 and 1652. Furthermore, although there were total solar eclipses visible in Scotland and Southern England in the intervening years, the next total eclipse visible from this part of the northwest of England was very probably the disappointingly cloudy day of 29th June 1925 on which totality lasted only a few seconds.

There had been a number of separate predictions for eclipses which did not take place or which were only partial eclipses and not viewable across the whole of the country. Of particular note is William Lilly’s ‘Merlini Anglici Ephemeris or predictions upon severall eclipses and celestiall configurations for the yeare 1649’. Lilly also made a prediction for the partial eclipse of 1648.


Photo: Total eclipse, Gaisberg, Salzburg, August 1999
Taken with an ordinary pocket camera and then enlarged

The ravens that had been circling now swooped down and settled on a bare-looking tree, exposed to the spring winds (which were strengthening) and most of whose leaves had barely broken through yet; still black as the raven itself against the shadowing sky. They landed there and put all their efforts to one side.


By the approach of nine o’clock the ice in the troughs had all but melted of its own accord. The exception was under the rim on the south-facing sides as this was shaded from the sun. I ran my fingers along this little wall of ice in one of the troughs to set it free. It floated loose. On contact with the water, my fingers sent the usual waves of light across the interior plane, reflecting the skies above, off the surface of the water. At first it seemed very bright as though the whole light of day were concentrated in that one spot. Then that seemed to fade. I expected it to return. In the meantime, briefly, the patterns of what little light remained seemed to carve out the image of Brierley’s face on the surface of the water as though he were actually lying there beneath it, his body never having actually permitted itself to be placed underneath the flags in his own church. However, as I stared at it, I realised that it was really nothing more than my own time-worn image again and that this recurrent mirage of Brierley was but a passing apparition which fooled me again because age had weathered both our faces to the same sad state.

…Still I expected the light to return. And still, it did not. If anything, the water seemed to become darker still, its depths a deeper shade of claret, its surface a darker grey with fewer interruptions of light. The contrast between those areas of lights and those of shade seemed to become gradually less pronounced as all descended into some red wine-dark depths.

Suddenly there was a firm but eerie chill in my spine as though it were in contact with the new iciness of dawn air once more. A shudder of pain passed through my aching bones – an unwelcome reminder of the scourges of Time upon the Flesh. Momentarily, it all stalled me. The sun must have been clouding over. I looked up casually – unsuspectingly too – only to discover that there were really very few clouds in the sky, seemingly making it all the colder at that moment in time. The ravens that had been circling now swooped down and settled on a bare-looking tree, exposed to the spring winds (which were strengthening) and most of whose leaves had barely broken through yet; still black as the raven itself against the shadowing sky. They landed there and put all their efforts to one side.

Still the light became more diffuse and the air as cold as it had been a couple of months before in the depths of winter again. I was about to return to my labours when my eyes, stumbling across the arc of the firmament, tripped on the sight of the sun itself. I was stunned: there was a circular bite missing from one edge of it. It was very obvious to me for it was far more than some slither. Staring at it almost blinded me, so much so that when I removed my eye from it, I could still see this unfamiliar new shape of the celestial body itself with a curved part of it missing from it imposed everywhere upon the landscape – on the trees, on the trough, on the grass, at any point in the sky and even upon the sheep themselves.

It was what had happened at the moment of my birth happening once again. My father had expected that he was going to die that day out in the snow. He had been motivated to write a will and, in truth, after that, what remained of his life descended into an ongoing struggle to overcome his crisis of faith with only one, inevitable end – and an end in utter bleakness, as devoid of any hope or optimism as the unbroken snows that month. Perhaps my time too was also coming to an end and this was the only portent of it that I would receive. Suddenly, I did not want to be where I was; it seemed that it would have been far more appropriate had I found myself on top of Pendle. I took a handful of paces back from the trough, not paying enough attention to where I was actually setting my feet in the muddy slime all but surrounding the trough but I did not fall as I might have done – blind trust was enough. Sometimes it is truly enough!

I stood up in the field and marvelled at the sky and the intrinsic beauty of this cold strangeness which seemed stable and yet, on closer inspection – as close an inspection as I could manage since it felt as though my eyes were on fire, literally consumed by what I was witnessing – was in a state of constant circular motion and flux. The obscured part of the sun was growing in proportion all the time, albeit ever so slowly, and the sun itself appeared as if waning as the cycle of the moon. But there was no fear in my mind: my patterns of thought were clearly very different from how my father’s had been: I would never live under the same curse of terror. That was not the interpretation of Protestantism I had developed. It might have been the interpretation I had inherited but – in its own terms – I had somehow squandered that! It would never have been good enough for me!

I would probably only see this once. Most people only saw it once or not at all. Brierley would have loved to have been on the Earth for this moment out of nowhere. And I also found myself speculating upon whether, somewhere in Lancashire, destitute on a remote hillside, Tempest Wayman was still around reading his golden letters in the sky to predict the exact date of the end of time… But no, he would surely be long gone too by now, given the poor state of health in which he had been and the even poorer manner in which he had cared for himself. The health of his body had never been his primary concern!

I put my hand in front of my face and attempted to watch the growth of the missing portion of the sun between two fingers, some messy compromise betwixt not viewing it all and blinding myself beneath it. I did not know at the time that we were the chosen landscape and that Londoners were witnessing slightly less of these events. And, therefore, I did ponder on what any remnants of my one-time Familist friends there – now long absorbed into a multitude of other sects – were making of it. My consideration was that amongst them those types of interests had actually come more to the fore. In retrospect, of course, it was perfectly possible that some of them were witnessing this too as some amongst them were now fled and scattered far and wide across the face of England. I looked around for someone with whom to share this experience but there was nobody; I was completely alone.

Perhaps that was how it was meant to be, that it was an experience destined to speak directly to me – perhaps, essentially, solely to me? Distantly, I could see a group of cattle on a neighbouring hillside, now a dark rust against the grey grass, fall onto its knees in unison. My mother had related to me what was going to happen next. Supposedly the things she told me were word for word what my father had told her. For she – of course – had been otherwise distracted at the time, at least until the thin veil had been removed from what little light there had still been in front of her in those moments! I ceased all pretence of my labours and sat down in the defrosting mud beneath me in silence. Then a true but untimely gloaming of the day descended upon me and I stood up again in a lightless, wintry cold, one which sent little shivers across the surface of the Flesh.

However, whilst I stood watching the moon which seemed to me like a millstone revolving[1] and just as I had become convinced that I would witness the whole event entirely alone, I heard the distant sounds of Janet and our daughter. They were running – close together and at quite some chaotic speed by both their standards – to be with me under the cold but fiery circle. My wife was the one I usually feared for under such circumstances as she possessed the tendency to fall. Youth tended to be less subject to such falling and recovered more quickly anyway! The way the late ice had melted clumsily onto the blades of grass meant that their boots would soon be as sodden as mine – if they were not already – and their long dresses were also brushing their ways through the struggling growth of grass, gradually soaking the lower parts of both of them. For whatever reason, superficially, it very much reminded me of that first Sabbath in Grindleton when Anne had crossed Chapel Garth ahead of me. But there were dissimilarities too. Anne had moved through that field with both delicacy and grace. Now my wife and daughter moved across the face of the low fell with neither but rather clumsiness, excitement and disorder – Janet just as lazy-footed as ever, if not more so. The onset of older age had seemed to worsen that still further – not a huge amount – but still noticeably. Potentially it was an accident waiting to happen since the defrosted surface was so like some unguent[2]. But never fear! If it should have proved to be the beginning of the End Time then so be it: we were all ready. There was no fear amongst any of us. The grass grew rather shorter there as well, constantly under some battering sentence of the judgemental, rolling surface winds – certainly in that season of the year!

They arrived, my wife visibly out of breath with her bonnet crooked and yet a wide grin across her face, evidence of the satisfaction that she had made it over to me in time, before the temporal miracle ceased. She stopped a yard or two away from me. Our eyes merely met for we had no need to speak much; her smile told me what she thought. I examined my daughter’s youthful, fascinated face (and I do not use a word less loaded than that!) as she stared up at the empty firmament, fully absorbed by it with no distractions. She was imbibing attitudes from us all the time – ones that were so very different from other young girls that one might have encountered around Preston Patrick[3]. I moved over to her.

Are you not cold, my dear?

She ceased to look at the sky only briefly, my voice an unwelcome intervention for her mind in its twelfth year[4] – just enough to turn to me, shake her head very deliberately, mutter half-heartedly, ‘No, father!’, as only an afterthought to her action and return her gaze to the Heavens above us. When my father had experienced this very same phenomenon some fifty three years earlier, he had considered himself to be on the very threshold of Death. Actually, I neither knew nor cared whether I should have considered myself to be under similar circumstances at that point in time. It seemed more than likely that the eclipse would cease, would come to an end and life return to normal. That was rationality of course and the Rational was never to be trusted completed even though its grip on Protestantism was beginning to tighten at the time. In truth, there is no such thing as a ‘normal’ life (there certainly never has been for me) and therefore it is impossible for life to be the same one side of an event and the other. Such thoughts became some nagging preoccupation to my mind as I stood there in the dark, cold, late morning field, the obscuring of the sun having passed its centre point[5]. I put one arm around Janet, who turned and smiled again on the feeling of my touch, on the one side and the other around my young daughter, Janet, on the other. The latter neither flinched nor responded but remained staring upwards. Such is the miracle of youth! The beauty of the moment almost pushed me to thank the Lord…

…then I remembered that that was not for us and, in its place, we were all silent together in an ante-meridiem[6], grace-given gloaming with any semblance of light only gradually returning! Light and darkness reunited; exactly how things should have been!


[1] This is the description of Dr Wyberg of Carrickfergus in Scotland from that very day.

[2] Unguent: salve or anointing ointment from the Latin, unguentum, ‘salve’, connected with the verb, unguere, ‘to anoint, smear’.

[3] Preston Patrick lies immediately off the M6, just a couple of miles north of Junction 36, to the southeast of Kendal. It is one of the villages most closely associated with Fox’s establishment of Quakerism in the Northwest of England in 1652. Nevertheless, in 1671 the Friends of Preston Patrick separated. It is only around nine miles from Kendal, now situated two miles from Junction 36 of the M6 and was formerly a detached part of Burton-in-Kendal (i.e. Kent Dale) parish. The hamlet still has a Quaker meeting although its own website suggests that it is short of members. By road Sedbergh is some fourteen miles from Preston Patrick although the distance could be considerably shorter over the fells. Preston Patrick Hall – where Camm (from the nearby Camgill) was sued for non-payment of tithes – is still there and a Grade II listed building.

We cannot tell from Matthew’s description exactly where Fell Farm is located in relation to it.

[4] This actually implies she is still eleven.

[5] i.e. totality being over as far as the human perceives it accurately.

[6] Ante meridiem (in more standardised form): literally, the Latin for, ‘before noon’. It came into use in English in the mid-1500s.