January 20, 2017
The highlight of today was visiting the ruins of Plymouth, formerly the capital of Montserrat. The Soufriere Hills Volcano blew in 1997 decimating the capital, the airport and a good portion of the homes on the south end of the island. Although there have not been further big disturbances since 2010, the volcano continues to puff out steam and there has been no thought that Plymouth will ever be excavated or rebuilt; thus, what we visited today was a modern Pompeii.
Until two years ago no tours of Plymouth were allowed but now there are a few local guides who can lead groups into the edges of Plymouth. This requires a police permit, which costs $150 EC$ regardless of the size of the group. Charles Daly took us on a haunting sobering three hour tour. Charles had to have a two way radio to be in communication with the Montserrat Volcano Observatory to let them know when we were entering the evacuation zone and when our eleven souls were exiting from there.
Fortunately Charles expertly drove his twelve passenger van as he had to dodge large trucks loaded with sand headed for the barge on the beach or meet the empty ones going inland for their fresh load of volcanic sand. This sand is the one lucrative export of the island. It is shipped to neighbouring coral islands for cement production for construction.
Charles paused in a few places to explain what we were seeing and allow us to take photos. We could not get out of the van as too many trucks were careening by. As well as the danger of being run over, they were leaving in their wake great clouds of dust that surely would have left us gasping and coated in dust. What we were seeing was the third or fourth floor of buildings as the lower part was completely buried. Many roof tops were gone or only the skeleton joists remained. Some rooftops were still intact. Remarkably there were quite a few glass windows that were still whole.
When we reached what would have been the port, now gone and replaced farther out with a short single pier, we got out of the van and were able to walk about seventy feet toward the remains of Plymouth. Our police escort was waiting for us to ensure that we did not go too far, that being beyond a long mound which appeared to be the original shoreline.
I found this to be an emotional experience: sad to see a whole town annihilated, to imagine how five or six thousand lives were changed, how a friendly happy community was destroyed and dispersed, never to return. Many of the inhabitants were relocated in England. Six of our group had experienced this town prior to volcanic eruption. This was their first time to return to Plymouth. I can imagine that they had stronger clashing emotions: fond memories of where they had shopped and dined and wandered the streets and sadness at its demise.The good news is that not many lives were lost as people had sufficient warning to evacuate.
Charles drove us to another spot where accompanied by our policeman, we were able to walk between what was Rams grocery store and Rams Hotel. Again only the top floor was visible. We stepped carefully on what was a street, now well buried. A clock tower which was twenty-eight feet tall is no longer to be found. Looking in door and window openings we could see a desk, chairs and a safe covered in lots of dust.
The backdrop for most photos was a different side of the volcano from the view we have from the Taj. It was also quite a clear view of the summit.
Charles drove us up to the former Montserrat Springs Hotel, stopping for us to view the inside of a three storey house that was divided into three condo units. From here we had a view over Plymouth in the valley. A ceramic Christmas tree was on one of the shelves. A table and chairs still stood. On the dust of the walls visitors had signed their names.
Charles drove us around the top of Richmond Hill. Wherever fuschia or bougainvillea draped itself over trees at the road’s edge we were sure to see a house if we looked more closely beyond the colourful display.
Charles drove us down a very rough rocky road to Foxes Bay. He said he had not been on that road lately and would not be back anytime soon. The acacias reaching across the road must have been seriously scratching his van to say nothing of what was happening to the suspension.
A walk on the beautiful beach was a refreshing relief from the hot van. The air conditioning was struggling to cool us. Charles drove us up the winding steep narrow incline to the MVO to return the two way radio then we wound down through Salem to the Taj.
It was truly an amazing tour, a good way to celebrate Al’s sixty-fourth birthday. We will continue celebrating by singing the Beatles tune at Hank’s Bar where we are going for dinner after a swim in the sea. This will be a fitting close to an adventurous day. Brian and I walked down to the same beach this morning at 7 AM, Brian to fish and I to swim. No luck for Brian, but a success for me.