Many visitors, or readers of sensationalist newspapers anyway, think of Padstow (Lannwedhenek in Cornish) only as Padstein (a reference to the famous TV chef Rick Stein) and/or little but a lot of fish and chip shops, but nothing could be further from the truth. The atmosphere is a holiday one, with bright colours, interesting shopping, ice cream, flags and bunting everywhere. The undercurrent is that of a proper seafaring village, woken by the sound of seagulls and lulled by the lap of water, where all the locals have been watermen for many generations, and the day to day infrastructure, providing banks and food shopping and everything else, is woven seamlessly between the lifestyles. The main street, wrapped around the fishing harbour with its tidal gate, can seem a little over busy, but step away into the back streets and you find as quiet, diverse and eclectic an experience as anyone could hope for.
The North Cornwall town of Padstow is still a working fishing port and a place of great character. As with many coastal towns, the sheltered harbour is ringed with interesting shops, pubs and eateries of all kinds. Located about a mile “inland” by virtue of its position well inside the Camel estuary, Padstow’s waters are usually fairly calm. There are a vast number of different sandy beaches and coves nearby, as well as fishing, boat trips, sailing and other watersports. For these reasons it is widely regarded as one of the best destinations in Cornwall, with the advantage of a rather less “towny” feel than Newquay which is a little further down the coast.
Padstow is very easily reached by road, just a few miles from the A39 which links effortlessly to all the arterial trunk roads running the length of Cornwall and connecting the county to the M5 motorway. There is no longer a railway serving Padstow, however, the nearest stop being Bodmin Parkway which is on a main line to London, but a regular bus service does operate to reach the station.
Padstow was probably already a village with a natural harbour when St Petroc arrived there in about 500AD. A Christian saint with almost the same popular appeal as Cornwall’s patron St Piran, he is said to have landed by boat in Trebetherick. It’s not clear whether Padstow was at that time known by its Cornish name of Lannwedhenek, but it seems possible. Later, however, it was called Petroc-stow after its missionary visitor, and is recorded by this name in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which refers to a raid by Vikings in 981. The Domesday Book mentions it too, but in medieval times the town was commonly called Aldestowe (the old town), presumably because many had moved on to pastures new (like Bodmin) further inland.
The climate of Padstow is, like the rest of Cornwall, exceptionally mild and blessed with nearly 17% more hours of sunshine per year than the UK average. Padstow stands out from this already illustrious crowd, however, by being sheltered from the prevailing south-westerly winds, yet with the slope of the town facing the sun for the entire day at most times of year. Add to this the micro-climatic advantages of warm rocks and an estuarine position, and it is sometimes hard to believe we aren’t in the Mediterranean, especially when basking in the sun overlooking turquoise seas – the water here is exceptionally clean.
Although commercial fishing has declined in the 21st century, Padstow retains an impressive fleet, and boats carrying the “PW” registration are regularly seen plying their trade in South West waters. The port is also popular with visiting yachts and small craft, and larger boats can use the deep water mooring facilities outside the harbour wall, their crew entering the harbour by tender. The port used to dry out at low tide, but in recent years flood gates have been in place to retain the water in the inner harbour, so that access to that area is only possible around the time of high tide.
First and foremost the Camel estuary is a mecca for watersports enthusiasts. Rock Sailing Club is renowned the world over. There is surfing at Harlyn or Polzeath and more. One can wind/kite-surf from Daymer Bay, there is waterskiing in the sheltered area further up the river, or just swim at many of the safe and sandy beaches.
Catching crabs from the Padstow harbour wall has long been a favourite pastime of the younger visitor to the town. You can buy a hand-line from many of the local shops, but a long piece of string and a coathanger or a weighted mesh bag will do just as well. For the adventurous, look for the boat trips to more exotic fishing locations.
There are many, many beaches around Padstow, even without venturing across to the other side of the water – tempting though that looks, as several miles of distant sand with a surprising lack of crowds can be seen from the harbour wall. Head north out of town on the South West Coast Path and you’ll soon find Ferry Beach. Onwards from there to St. George’s, Harbour Cove (Tregirls), Hawker’s Cove, and Iron Cove. Or, a short drive away are the surfing beaches of Harlyn and Trevone, and Treyarnon.
Dog Friendly Beaches
There are myriad beaches around Padstow where our furry friends are welcome. Some are open to canine fun all the year round, like:
- Bedruthan Steps
- Booby’s Bay, accessible only from Constantine or Treyarnon car parks
- Hawker’s Cove
- Mawgan Porth
- Mother Ivey
- Rock side, from Porthilly all the way to Daymer Bay
Some are welcoming to the four legged only from October to the beginning of Easter:
- St George’s Cove
The Camel trail really is a Cornish gem. The old disused railway line from Padstow has been resurfaced and provides a wide, fairly flat cycle path (equally suited to walking, and dog friendly) all the way through Wadebridge to Bodmin and onwards to Wenfordbridge which is at St. Breward on Bodmin Moor. Bluebell meadows, bubbling brooks, spectacular bridges and old stations are features of the journey, which follows the Camel estuary for spectacular marine views too. The total distance is about 30km (18.5 miles) but the towns en route make it equally possible to break up the adventure into thirds. Bike hire companies ply their trade at Wadebridge as well as Padstow.
Camel Valley Vineyard
The exceptional weather of the region allows for a thing rarely enjoyed in the UK – a real working vineyard, and the maker of some award winning wines and bubbly into the bargain.
A popular family day out not far from Padstow, where children can feed the animals or take a ride on a tractor or a miniature railway. There’s also a Farmhouse Café, serving everything from ice-creams to Cornish pasties, and teas to local cider.
Few can fail to be enchanted by this lovely Elizabethan house which is just walking distance from the centre of Padstow. Still lived in by the Prideaux family, this building and its grounds are a must-see for anyone interested in history. If you walk up there as dusk falls, you can often see a large herd of deer come out to feed on the grass just across the road from the main house.
Padstow boasts every kind of eating, from burgers or fish and chips to fine dining. Of course one of Padstow’s more famous inhabitants is the TV chef Rick Stein. With culinary strings to his bow that include the original Rick Stein’s Café and fine dining, Rick Stein’s Fish ‘n’ Chips, Rick Stein’s St Petroc’s Bistro, Rick Stein’s Seafood School and more, some have cruelly rechristened the town Padstein. But they’re only jealous…
In addition to Rick’s contributions, there are literally dozens of different cafés, restaurants and bars of all kinds scattered around Padstow itself, most of them easily found around the harbour or in a wander through the back streets just behind. And don’t forget that a few miles out of town at Harlyn, St Merryn or a boat trip across the river in Trebetherick and Rock we can find many more wonderful places to eat and drink.
The ceremonial parades of Mummer’s Day, or “Darkie Day” as it is sometimes known (a corruption of the original name “Darking Day”), are an ancient Cornish midwinter celebration that occurs each year on Boxing Day and/or New Year’s Day in Padstow and other villages in Cornwall. It was originally part of the pagan festival of midwinter (Solstice) celebrations that were regularly celebrated throughout the area. People would take part in the traditional custom of guise dancing (guizing), which involved disguising themselves by painting their faces, wearing masks or veils, and often cross-dressing. The dark face paint, masks and dark clothing are not a racial reference, but symbolic of the darkness of the mid-winter, and in sharp contrast with the ‘white’, summer festivals in Cornish towns. Like:
The festival of the ‘Obby ‘Oss (hobby horse) in Padstow is held on the May Day weekend. Although its origins aren’t clear, it is probably an ancient fertility rite, perhaps related to the Celtic pagan festival of Beltane. The red and the blue ‘osses (actually men dressed in large black drum-like costumes with vestigial horse’s heads) dance around the town, followed by white-clad locals bearing either red or blue accessories, whisking young maidens under their skirts for, um, good luck.
A similar white procession often occurs on the summer solstice.
Padstow Harbour Day
Also known as the RNLI Lifeboat Day, this is a fundraising event for both the inshore lifeboats and the big offshore one stationed at Trevose Head. The old lifeboat station was at Hawker’s Cove, which is somewhat blocked by the Doom Bar at low tide. The new, deepwater station around the corner at Trevose makes for an interesting visit and a nice (but fairly long) walk from Trevone.
Padstow also enjoys a carnival, usually in the last week of July, with a range of activities and attractions for young and old.
There has been a ferry of one sort or another linking the two sides of the Camel estuary for centuries. Currently the Black Tor ferry maintains a service for foot passengers (and dogs and bicycles) between Padstow and the Rock side throughout the day, and a water taxi runs in the evening until midnight.
One of Cornwall’s more unlikely-sounding attractions, the National Lobster Hatchery on the south side of the docks is actually quite captivating. It is extremely educational, whether you like conservation, wildlife or food, and children seem to enjoy it enormously. There are lobsters in various stages of development being prepared for release into the wild, a museum of interesting lobster stuff, and impressive beasts like giant lobster and spider crabs.
The Doom Bar is a sand bank extending across the Camel estuary from the west side leaving only a narrow deep channel for shipping to pass through, next to Daymer Bay on the other shore. It has always been a hazard to craft big or small, and probably got its name from the significant loss of life this has inflicted over the centuries. Large sailing ships typically suffered from a loss of control as they entered the wind shadow of the high cliffs at the mouth of the estuary, and sometimes failed to make the channel. Smaller boats were usually victims of misjudging the tide. The sea over the bar is quite deep at high water, and the sand is clearly visible at low tide, but at medium levels it’s all too easy for boats to surf on the incoming swells until they strike the bottom and potentially capsize. Even now. Historically it was unusual for fishermen to be able to swim, especially in heavy boots and clothing, and tragedy naturally ensued. More recently, the Doom Bar has been made famous by the beer of the same name, manufactured by Sharps’ Brewery of Rock, Cornwall, and popular all over the UK.
The Trevose Golf & Country Club is just outside Padstow on the Atlantic coast. As well as the incredible location and views, it boasts the Championship course, an 18 hole affair that ranks as one of the top links golf courses in the UK, as well as the 9 hole “Headland” course and a short course for practice or the more casual golfer.
There are many different types of boat trips running from Padstow in the season, from fishing trips to the thrills and spills of speedboats, and from leisurely cruises to the Sea Safaris. Most can be seen plying their trade from the harbour itself, so you can easily decide what takes your fancy.
There are great opportunities for riding near Padstow, in the hills or on the beaches. Check out Tina’s Riding Stables, a small family business set in the beautiful scenery near to Harlyn Bay, catering for beginners as well as the experienced equestrian.
Holiday Cottages in Padstow
There is a lovely and varied selection of holiday cottages to rent in the Padstow locale, from fisherman’s cottages to barn conversions and traditional houses small and large.