It helps to live near an observatory at certain points in one’s life. When my elation over the impending solar eclipse on 20 March had faded, I realised on Wednesday that I had no glasses with which to view the sun through, and Herstmonceux, a place that I vaguely remembered existed close by in East Sussex, became my solution.And so I returned to the place I knew as a child to be just an educational day out for schools. Without checking the weather forecast beforehand. At Herstmonceux, the Wealden Astronomical Society had lined up with their telescopes of varying sizes, all equipped with solar filters, but alas, not with cloud filters. The sun was nowhere to be seen, and the only difference we could feel during the eclipse was a drop in temperature and a slight darkening of the nebulous blanket covering the sky. Still, I actually noticed a difference this time, having learnt from my mistake when in 2009 I only exited from a café in Beijing for that minute of totality, not thinking that the progress of the moon takes place over around 2 hours…in any case, air pollution meant that there was hardly a change felt.
The only thing to do after the disappointment of the eclipse was to explore the observatory complex, which had been turned into a science playground after the Royal Greenwich Observatory moved out of Herstmonceux in 1990. Most rooms were orientated towards children mainly, and the museum did not offer a student concession, but Dome F and its exhibition on the history and importance of the site was eye-opening.
Fourteen years after my last visit, I finally realised that research at Herstmonceux was crucial in groundbreaking discoveries of the 20th century. In 1908 a 13-inch reflector at Herstmonceux took a photograph from which the 8th moon of Jupiter was identified. It was from Herstmonceux that in 1919 a 13-inch refractor was taken, reassembled in Brazil, and used to view the total eclipse and prove Einstein’s theory that gravity distorted starlight. And in 1969 images taken from the Issac Newton telescope housed in its own dome slightly off-site led to the discovery of the first black hole in the Cygnus constellation. Moreover, not only did Herstmonceux house one of the most priceless collection of telescopes in the world, but it also housed, in another dome of its own, an atomic clock from which the pips times signal was sent, determining the time for the nation as a whole. And the castle next to the observatory at which the staff lived, worked, and played cricket is the oldest brick castle in England.
Herstmonceux was the working centre of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich (ROG) from 1958 to 1990, and the famous Issac Newton telescope was built there in 1967. The ROG was originally founded in 1675 as the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) and based in Greenwich, but by the end of WWII Greenwich was no longer a village but part of the much larger city of London, and astronomers needed a better location from which to make their observations.
It was controversial to move to Herstmonceux, since the telescopes were thought to be wasted in a low-lying area. But funds were scarce after the war, and aviation was still too costly. Astronomers Royal seem to have enjoyed their time there. The 10th Astronomer Royal, Harold Spencer Jones, known more for his precise measurements of the Earth’s rotation, also took on the role of Santa Claus at every Christmas season. There were complaints about the lily pond, which was deemed hazardous to staff working at night, but you would think that astronomers who could identify what seemed to me to be white specks on a fuzzy image as specific celestial bodies might be able to avoid falling into the lily pond!
I missed the period during which Herstmonceux was occupied by the ROG by less than a decade. In 1990 the ROG moved to Cambridge, but it was losing its major telescopes – the Issac Newton one had been moved to a mountaintop observatory at La Palma in the Canary Islands in 1979 – and the ROG was closed not long afterwards, in 1998.
In the end, I had no regrets about going. As well as learning how to use a sun-spotter, I learnt a lot from speaking with the Wealden AS and a physicist monitoring the radio signal strength. About solar filters and welding glasses, the position of Venus in the night sky, the orbital periods of planets beyond Mars, the total eclipse viewed from Cornwall in 1999, coronal holes, William Herschel’s theory that the sun was habitable, and how limb darkening is (with a non-scientist’s understanding) also limb brightening depending on which way you approach the question. I even came away with a new astrophysics joke: Person A says to Person B who is observing the sky on a mountaintop:
If you see stars, you need to see a doctor!
Get it? If one sees stars one might be just hallucinating due to the lack of oxygen.
Clutching my two solar eclipse glasses, I left satisfied that at least I had not opted to sit in front of the TV watching broadcasts of other locations in the UK where the weather was equally dismal (why didn’t they stick to broadcasting places that weren’t overcast?). I hope to actually get a chance to use those glasses in 2026. I am determined to actually see a sun in the sky for my third solar eclipse.