Papa Westray, Orkney – St Ann and St Boniface

We will be return to Orkney (probably in 2019 – 2018 will be a bit busy with Hannah and Bertie’s wedding). Before we leave, let me blog about a visit to Papa Westray on Monday 29 August 2011. In those days I only blogged Northumberland churches, but it was a very special day – made more special in memory because it was a wonderful day I had with Gareth (my eldest son, who died on Boxing Day 2013).

One of my ambitions was to fly the shortest scheduled air flight in the world – the route from Papa Westray to Westray, less than 2 minutes. There is lots of information about the island on this website – including details of the plane, the ferry, and ways of seeing the island once you arrive. I booked us on a tour.

There was only one spare seat on the day we wanted to fly, so we ended up with me catching the ferry from Kirkwall to Westray at 0630.

Then a minibus across Westray, and the ferry to Papa. Stuart, who was showing us round the island, collected me, took me to the Co-op Hostel so I could have coffee while he used the minibus for the school run. He then picked Gareth up from the 0930 flight, which arrived at 0953, having done the hop from Westray en route.

We were given a guided tour of the island, went into the little museum, met Chris the RSPB Warden who – it turned out – had been a pupil at the school in Ponteland I was governor of. He asked after various members of staff. “Can I take your photo and mention you in assembly?” I asked. “Yes. You can tell the little b*****s, that if they don’t do any work, they’ll end up on an island off the coast of Scotland”, he replied.

We had lunch, cooked by Stuart’s wife Mary, at St Ann’s church – HY495516 – website. They have a weekly service – last week she had taken it (with a congregation of 15). They have modernised the church, it now has a hall, a doctor’s surgery, and a flat for a visiting medic or minister. The felt banners are lovely, though my photos do not do justice to them.

My diary says “Fed and watered, we continued to St Boniface Kirk. This ecclesiastical site dates back to the 8th century and stands above the rocky shore towards the north west of the island. A Norse hog-back gravestone and two Early Christian cross-slabs found in the Kirkyard all combine to indicate a site of great significance. There is a good write up here. The woodwork inside is good – rebuilt quite recently. One lump of panelling is said to be from a ship lost after the Spanish Armada, the lamps came from St Ann’s, and the tiles were made by the school children. The lichens and the fuchsia hedge are rather special too.”

Our last visit was to the Knap of Howar – website. This is the oldest known dwelling in Orkney, and the oldest standing buildings in northern Europe. Skara Brae is 5,000 years old. The Knap is 600 years older. Here you can crawl through the entrance tunnels and enter the houses themselves. They are incredibly well made – you can imagine people living there. The larger standing slabs of stone that seem to divide the rooms, the cupboards, hearths and quernstone.

Back to the church for a final cup of tea, then Stuart ran me to the airport for the 1651 plane, to go via Westray and arrive at Kirkwall at 1714. I got the seat behind the pilot. It is odd when he turns round and addresses you. “It’s a bit noisy and the corner we turn over to Westray is a bit tight. We’re landing on the grass when we get there, so don’t think I’ve missed the runway. Your lifejacket is under your seat, but if an engine cuts out I can glide into land.” He wasn’t kidding about the tight turn. We did take off to landing in 1 minute 46 seconds. The flight back over the islands to Kirkwall was stunning.

Gareth got the 1655 ferry, the bus across Westray, and arrived back at Kirkwall at 1920. A marvellous day – and this was the only photo I got of my son!

In 2014, some Ponteland friends went north for the wedding of Chris the bird man. They must have chatted to Stuart and told him Gareth had died, as a few days later I got a card saying how he remembered this day, and the pleasure he had had showing us round the island. That meant a huge amount. You meet some lovely people in this world.

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