All
All thats still visible of this church in doomed Plymouth is the tip of the steeple.



HEY, BOOOOGIE, cooed the dreadlocked musician from the back of the light aircraft. Having caught the attention of the passengers, he continued in an awed tone: Hey, we visited the volcano!
Encouraged by the general ripple of amusement, he warmed to his impression of a gob-smacked tourist. His audience consisted pretty much of me and the backing band for Arrow, who was sitting upfront. Never heard of Arrow Hes a legend in Montserrat.
Youre sure to have boogied at some wedding reception to his worldwide 80s smash Hot Hot Hot.
Arrow and the boys had been home for a concert, and now they and I were leaving on the Twin Otter that is the eastern Caribbean islands only link with the outside world, via nearby Antigua.
As the plane wheeled, I was afforded a fine view of the Soufriere Hills Volcano itself, a vaporous 3000ft dome that hadnt existed three years ago. In fact, from up here I could make out much of the eastern side of the 40sq mile island.
Through the window across the aisle was the leafy-green north we had just left, settled in the 17th century by Irish Catholics who liked to think that it resembled the Emerald Isle.
Below my own window lay the ashen no-mans land that is the southern portion of Montserrat.
A few days earlier, I had been much closer to the volcano. And its true, I had been awestruck by it, even more so than by the lava-based dive sites, though
these too had provided some happy memories. My passport to both had been a motor-boat driven by ex-US Marine Troy Deppermann, the only dive operator currently on the island.
An excellent diving companion and general guide, if prone to periods of deep gloom as he struggles to eke out a living - Im going to sign on for 12 months
in Afghanistan next year, because itll be a helluva lot easier than this - Troy kindly dedicated the three full days I had to spend in Montserrat to diving its north-western coast with me.
Troy and his partner Melody are the Green Monkey dive shop in Little Bay. Troy drives and maintains the boat Giant Stride, looks after the centre and the gear and conducts the dives and volcano tours. Melody, ex-lawyer and non-diver, does everything else.
Troy and I seemed to be pretty much the only divers in Montserrat that week, apart from some scientists surveying
for a possible marine reserve, and adding to Troys frustrations with their unscientific approach to booking boats.

MONTSERRAT, IN THE LEEWARD ISLANDS chain, is one of Britains last remaining overseas territories.
Only 4500 people live there. A third are Montserratians who remained or were born there after 1995. Thats when the Soufriere Hills Volcano began erupting, and finally engulfed their capital, Plymouth. Everyone else fled to the UK, mainly Birmingham.
There are 1000 expat Brits, Canadians and Americans, and 1000 workers from other islands.
Montserrat offers a flavour of the old Caribbean. Property is very cheap, for obvious reasons, although the northern safe zone is unlikely to suffer anything worse than the occasional deluge of volcanic ash, or grey snow.
There is a pleasant 18-room business hotel near Little Bay, and half a dozen guest-houses, like Travellers Palm where I stayed, run by cheerful British couple Roy and Lottie McDonald.
Finally, there are a number of rentable and quite luxurious cliff-top villas and apartments, which divers travelling in a group could enjoy for pocket money.
Lottie is a keen ex-BSAC diver, and to judge from her stories, Im not sure I caught the best of what Montserrat has to offer during my brief visit.
On my first day of diving, the wind had whipped up the sediment so much that we couldnt even find the first site.
A deep reef at 26m, so reckoned a fair bet for decent visibility, Pot Of Gold may as well have been located at the end of the rainbow.
Troy had laid mooring buoys near this and other reefs. He and I couldnt have been 10m from the Pot, but we must have left the line and travelled into the murk in the wrong direction.
Aborting the attempt, we kept our tanks on and drove south in search of a reef with a view. We found a shallow one, with a flounder settled in by the shot, but there was a strong groundswell, lots of detritus about and the coral seemed patchy and battered.
There were snappers and squirrelfish, some spotted drums and luminous-looking surgeonfish, but it was hardly reef-diving at its most inspiring.
Troy was depressed, all the more so because some dive gear and a laptop had been stolen from Green Monkey the previous night.
Crime is rare on Montserrat, apart from the occasional act of passion, which usually involves a game of dominoes and flailing machetes. Its hard to imagine the British pub version moving anybody to murderous acts!
Troy reckoned the thieves were probably kids he had chased away from the centre days before.
And now one of Giant Strides diesel engines was smoking and he couldnt get the parts, bored Customs officials at the pier were tying him in bureaucratic knots, and my presence was probably the last thing he needed.
But he filled the boat with visitors that afternoon, and took us south to see a sight that left everybody rather quiet and thoughtful.
Plymouth was once the busy capital of Montserrat, home for 4000 people. Now its abandoned, and all you can see are roofs, upper storeys and the tips of church steeples, poking from a sea of hardened ashen mud that washes down from the volcanic dome.
Deep cracks zig-zag through what is tagged the modern-day Pompeii.
The crater is often wreathed in clouds, but that day the sun shone and the peak was plain to see, emitting the blue vapour that results from cold air condensing on burning rock surfaces.
I have seen some scenes of devastation, including the Twin Towers site in New York just days after 9/11, but this, even a decade after the main event, was Nature flexing her muscles on an epic scale.
Sometimes you can hear the volcano rumbling when youre on a dive, said Troy. You cant enter the ruins these days, since an increase in volcanic activity in late 2006, but residents hope the new dome will eventually collapse, and things will settle down again.

THE SEA AT LEAST HAD SETTLED DOWN the next day, so the two of us were able to get on with some diving in decent visibility. It wasnt just the disappointment of the previous day that now made Pot of Gold shine.
The dark sandy shelf between Montserrat and the abyss is littered with volcanic boulders that form a substrate for patch reefs like Pot of Gold. And the relative lack of pollution or other disturbances from this under-populated island is reflected in the size and quality of the organisms that live here. You wonder how many virgin reefs await discovery.
Most noticeable were the immense deep-pink barrel sponges, some bigger than a diver, and the array of healthy hard and soft corals. Sizeable brain and star corals abound, and the many pillar corals, extravagantly branched staghorns and waving gorgonia lend a real water-garden appearance.
Combined with multi-coloured encrusting sponges, the familiar bright yellow cylinders of tube sponges, delicate blue-tipped anemones, a variety of feathery worms and sea-pens the colour of sunbursts, this was impressive static life Montserrat-style.
The eye might be drawn to a pair of flamingo tongue snails on a purple seafan, their markings as delineated as a design on porcelain, or to a humanoid gorgonian, looming over ranks of sponge like a monstrous scarecrow.
The fish appeared well-fed and numerous too, at Pot of Gold and at the subsequent shallower reefs, all within easy reach of Little Bay.
These sites, at North-west Bluff, Virgin Island further south, and off the uncharacteristically white-sanded Rendezvous Beach, were in the 10-18m range. There was more sediment in the water and more of a swell, but all were fun to explore.
Happy and relieved after the Pot of Gold dive, Troy and I would spend up to 75 minutes a time surfing around these reefs and checking out their hidden places. Troy, like many a lean dive guide, feels the cold after an hour or so, but I, admittedly better padded, selfishly made the most of our downtime.
Whipping through the coral alleys would be immaculate powder-blue surgeonfish, angels, queen triggers and parrots. Lone giant barracuda cruised past, out for trouble.
On one occasion, a vast ribbon of needle-nosed southern sennet passed across the reef like barracuda wraiths.
Hiding in cracks and under overhangs were many speckled moray eels and plump brown porcupinefish. Southern sting rays would slip away suddenly in clouds of sand. Snapper and sergeant-majors were present in numbers, triangular-profile trunkfish buzzed around like miniature helicopters, and clouds of blue tang, bluehead and neon-coloured basslets flitted everywhere.
What we didnt see were turtles or any crustaceans. I was told that their absence was unusual.

ONE AFTERNOON, WE TRAVELLED by car to see the Exclusion Zone from both east and west coasts. The driver, Furlonge, would look impassively from each vantage point towards the part of the island where he once lived, but which he could no longer visit.
Many of his family had moved to England, but could Montserrat manage without Furlonge and the famous goat water he cooks and sells all over the island This is a stew more richly delicious than its name implies - he may need to get the marketing people onto that.
We drove onto the river of mud that had engulfed the old golf course, and left the clubhouse buried up to its roof. We visited the volcano observatory and the new cultural centre endowed by George Martin, whose Air Studios once made Stones, Clapton, Sting and Lou Reed regular visitors to Montserrat. This is where Arrow was playing.
And on the last day, before catching the flight home, a man with a flak jacket and a machete led me up into the rainforest and, through a series of realistic bird calls, managed to attract one of Montserrats national icons, a small yellow oriole.
It was a surprise to find hermit crabs so high above sea level, too.
Montserrat provides a fascinating glimpse into a volcanic world, both topside and under water. I would recommend it to any reef divers happy to get away to the sort of place where everything still closes on a Sunday.
Travelling to and from Antigua, you may wish to consider the alternative to WinAir, which imposes rigid weight restrictions, is unforgiving on late connections, and employs check-in staff who plumb new depths of surliness.
Every local seems to have horror stories about the airline that has become islanders only exit route since the sea ferry packed up. Even the director of tourism had to invoke the threat of her lawyer on speed-dial when threatened with being bumped off a flight.
The alternative, if youre travelling as a group, is to charter your own flight, avoid the baggage restrictions, and perhaps save on the fare. Either way, Montserrat will repay the effort.


Troy
Troy Deppermann at the Green Monkey dive centre.
A
A diver on the reef off north-west Montserrat.
This
This is as close to buried Plymouth and the Soufriere Hills Volcano as most visitors now get.
A
A flying gurnard spreads its wings.
Porcupinefish
Porcupinefish under an overhang.
Coral-eating
Coral-eating flamingo tongue snails.
Troy
Troy Deppermann drives past Plymouth and the towering volcano.
Tube
Tube sponges are a common sight on the reefs.
Exploring
Exploring Montserrats reefs is a leisurely affair - and theyre far from crowded.
A
A speckled moray eel.
Divernet
FACTFILE

GETTING THERE: Return flights to Antigua with Virgin or Atlantic BA and onward connection to Geralds Airport by WinAir, www.fly-winair.com, but groups could charter a flight with Carib Aviation, www.carib-aviation.com. Car hire is recommended, otherwise use taxis. Departure tax is US $17.
DIVING: Green Monkey Dive Shop will design custom itineraries for groups, www.divemontserrat.com.
ACCOMMODATION: B&B: Travellers Palm, www.travellerspalmmontserrat.com. Villas/apartments: TradeWinds Real Estate, www.tradewindsmontserrat.com. Hotel: Tropical Mansion Suites, www.tropicalmansion.com.
WHEN TO GO: Year-round, but July-Oct is hurricane season. Water temperature, 25-29C. Turtle-watching Aug-Sept.
MONEY: Eastern Caribbean or US dollar.
PRICES: Flights from London BA/WinAir from 630. Travellers Palm, US $45-65 a night. A four-bed, four-bath villa with housekeeper, pool etc starts from $750 a week out of season, double in season - thats £50/£100 a head for eight sharing. Charter flights from Antigua, about $1200 return for eight (£75 a head). Two-tank boat dive with Green Monkey, US $80. Divequest offers packages from £501, with seven nights room-only at Tropical Mansion Suites, transfers and 10 dives with Green Monkey, www.divequest.co.uk.
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.visitmontserrat.com or 020 7298 1600. Volcano information, www.mvo.ms