Apologies – I thought this had been posted last Monday, and have only just realised that it wasn’t! Obviously not yet got the hang of scheduling on the new WordPress platform…anyway, enjoy!


I got a certificate last week.

The getting of certificates is, of course, one of life’s many little pleasures, especially in one’s younger days. Be it a record of swimming your first length (never got that one), passing the cycling proficiency test (ditto), or obtaining a doctorate in seventeenth century naval history (nailed it), certificates are prizes to be treasured, and to be proudly hawked around the family like priceless artefacts brought back from expeditions to El Dorado. These days, though, certificates are fewer and further between, which is more than one can say of bills, junk mail and moronic politicians. But I’m quite chuffed about my newest one, which marks the fact that I’ve taken the world’s shortest scheduled flight. Bet you don’t get one for doing the world’s longest, do you? Ha. Thought not. Length isn’t everything, as the old saying goes.

The flight in question operates from Westray to Papa Westray (known locally as Papay) in Orkney, and it’s an absolute delight. In the first place, of course, you have to get to Westray, which means a flight from Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital. This operates on a slightly different level to, say, Heathrow Terminal Two, from which I recently flew to Vienna. Check-in involves no passports, no boarding cards, no security barriers. Instead, the same person (from the Czech Republic, infectiously enthusiastic about his adopted home) checks us in, then dons a hi-vis jacket and becomes the baggage handler, wheeling our bags out to the tiny Islander aircraft. The pilot is on first name terms with the ground crew and, indeed, with several of the passengers; there’s barely room for him to turn round and speak to us, let alone stand up and demonstrate the lifejacket drill. A twelve-minute flight, low over waves, ships and islands, takes us to Westray, which we’d visited on a previous trip. It’s a lovely place with some outstanding archaeology, but our destination this time was Papay, just across the water. So it’s take-off from Westray’s airstrip…over a miniscule fraction of the mighty Atlantic…and down again! Less than two minutes in total. That’s it. Shortest in the world. Ticked off bucket list, collect certificate on return to Kirkwall, thank you very much.

The proof

If the flight was an example of how flying probably used to be, then Papay is an example of how Britain used to be. Or at least, it’s an example of a rose-coloured fantasy of how a particular version of Britain used to be: people being able to leave their doors open, knowing their neighbours, friendly and welcoming to visitors, etc etc. We went to a coffee morning in the local church, because the lady at Papay airfield mentioned it to us, and were immediately welcomed with open arms, provided with coffee and cake, and engaged in conversation by several of the locals. Except, and here’s the irony, most of them weren’t really ‘locals’ at all; several had unmistakeably English accents, and had fetched up on Papay for a variety of reasons. One put forward the provocative theory that as society elsewhere had become more ‘sophisticated’, it had also become less civilised, and somewhere like Papay provided the antidote to this. Whatever the reason, true islanders, and even Orcadians from elsewhere in the archipelago, are a minority now, forming no more than a quarter to a third of the population. But there were exceptions: Jim, whom we encountered at the coffee morning, was born on the island in the 1930s, and on learning that I was from south Wales, proudly recalled how he’d done part of his National Service in the Brecon Beacons. But he’d come back, unlike so many. We later discovered that the lady at the airfield is one of his daughters.

Blink and you’ll miss the entire flight

More civilised than elsewhere, though? Well, for one thing, most of the islands in Orkney have community-cum-heritage centres. They usually contain display boards and bound albums containing vast amounts of fascinating information about local history. Some of them have TVs, on which you can play DVDs about the island. Pretty well all of them have chairs, tables, kettles, and tea and coffee, which you can pay for in an ‘honesty box’. And most of them are never locked.

Papay’s splendid community and heritage centre, formerly a kelp store. Kitchen beyond the door.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention. In addition to its friendly, laid back, welcoming atmosphere, Papay has terrific views and archaeological sites that include the oldest house in northern Europe, the Knapp of Howar. And, like pretty much the whole of the rest of Orkney, there are virtually no potholes. Read it and weep, mainland Britain.

‘Outstanding coastal location, but in need of some improvement.’

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