Tucked inside the Camel Estuary, popular Padstow is a smart little harbour town. It balances a working fishing fleet with being a top visitor destination, famous as a high-end foodie hotspot.
However, there's a lot more to this busy port than fish and fine dining. The town's little old streets are a joy to explore, and there are glorious beaches and coastal walks right on Padstow's doorstep.
It's a versatile spot, attracting families, outdoorsy people and romantic couples, and it has to be said, it caters well for all these different groups. Here's a closer look at the town that has on occasion been referred to as Padstein…
A Brief History of Padstow
Padstow was already a bustling little port of fishermen and boat-builders in the time of Elizabeth 1st. Today, the local fisherman supply the many fish restaurants, which have recently become a major feature of the town.
Looking at a map, it's easy to see why Padstow is where it is. The River Camel is the only sheltered estuary between Hayle in West Cornwall and Devon. Positioned in a small valley on the more sheltered westerly side of the river, Padstow became a thriving fishing port and later trading port.
Padstow's growth accelerated during the 16th and 17th centuries. This was partly due to the development of the harbour, with the construction of the first stone pier in 1536. The growth of the mining and quarrying industry in the area established Padstow as a major port town. Copper ore was shipped to Bristol and slates exported, many from the Delabole slate quarry a few miles inland.
During the 19th century, the port flourished with the pilchard industry at its height. Shipbuilding became a major industry, with six working shipyards in Padstow at one point.
The railway brought tourism to Padstow in 1899. The Atlantic Express ran a regular service between London and Padstow. Since then the town has never looked back and although the fishing industry still survives, there is little doubt what Padstow's main industry is these days.
Today, Padstow's harbour is also filled with pleasure boats of all descriptions. There is a regular ferry across the river to Rock (a.k.a. “Little Chelsea / Chelsea-upon-Sea”). When asked what the best thing is about Rock, a true Padstow local will reply, "The view!".
The Doom Bar and Camel Estuary
In 1827, the Padstow lifeboat station was established, and with good cause. At the mouth of the Camel Estuary is the infamous Doom Bar, a treacherous sandbank that's caused over 600 shipwrecks since records began (around 200 years ago).
It's said that the Doom Bar is the result of a mermaid's curse. The story goes that there was once a merry mermaid who watched over the vessels that went in and out of Padstow. One day, she was shot by a sailor on a visiting boat. The mermaid's curse was that the harbour would become desolate from that time on. Shortly after a great storm came, wrecking many of the ships in harbour and throwing up the sandbank.
The Camel Estuary (from kemmel, meaning crooked) enters the Celtic Sea at Padstow Bay, and as well as the notorious Bar, there are some lovely, sandy beaches near its mouth. The River Camel begins 30 miles away on Bodmin Moor, and flows through beautiful countryside before widening into an estuary.
Padstow has become synonymous with Rick Stein and his seafood restaurants - it is hard to talk of one without mentioning the other. The local view of the celebrity chef's effect on the town is mixed: Padstow is certainly on the map and has a flourishing foodie tourism trade; however property prices in the small town have rocketed.
However, Rick Stein and the success of his Padstow enterprises kick-started the quality dining revival in Cornwall a few years ago, and the county now has some of the UK's best places to eat. Come to Padstow for a wonderful combination of fine dining, old pubs and cheerful takeaways, and the freshest fish you've ever eaten.
It's possible to have the Stein experience in Padstow without splashing out on a fine dining table. Visit Rick Stein's fish and chip shop for a takeout after a day on the beach, eaten by the harbour, straight from the box.
May Day in Padstow means one thing: the Obby 'Oss ( Hobby Hoss ) festival. This ancient form of the May Day celebrations welcomes in the spring. It's probably derived from the Celtic Beltane celebration, incorporating various old fertility rites.
The highlight of the festivities is when the two famous Obby 'Osses take to the streets. Two male dancers dress up as stylised horses (you really have to know they're horses, as unlike Penzance's Penglas, they really don't look very equine). They wear masks and black capes, which are draped around hoop-like frames.
The two ‘Osses, Old and Blue Ribbon, try to catch maidens under their capes as they dance through the streets. The ‘Osses are (barely) kept in check by their assistants, known as Teasers. The celebrations finish at midnight with a song about the Osses' deaths and resurrection.
Padstow also has a winter celebration, Mummers' Day. This rather controversial festival used to be called “Darkie Day”, which was (quite understandably) renamed recently. Dancers and musicians paint their faces black and parade through the town. Although the origins of this come from the old guise dancing (a traditional dance with the participants disguised by their face paint), potential racist connotations couldn't be ignored, hence its new name. The Mummers' Day celebrations are held every Boxing Day and New Year's Day, and raise money for local causes.
What to do in Padstow
Padstow is one of those really versatile holiday destinations. It's perfect for a family beachside holiday or a romantic weekend (including dining out, of course), and also makes a great base for an action-packed adventure. What are the best things to do in Padstow?
The elegant Elizabethan manor house looks out over the town. Dating from 1592, the house remains in the Prideaux-Brune family, who open their home for seasonal guided tours. You can visit Prideaux Place's traditional formal gardens and deer park, which feel like another world after Padstow's bustle.
Enjoy a stroll around the 3,500-acre park, before retreating to the charming tea room for homemade treats.
The much-loved Camel Trail is a multi-use path that runs the 18 miles from Padstow to Wenford Bridge. Because it follows the route of a former railway line, it's flat and easy to follow, making it a popular choice among young families with bikes.
On its way, the trail passes through beautiful estuarial and inland scenery, including Pinkson Creek. Look out for curlews, egrets and herons.
Fancy somewhere a bit different? The National Lobster Hatchery in Padstow is one of Cornwall's most unique and intriguing attractions, and it's absolutely fascinating.
The Hatchery was established to conserve Cornwall's lobster population, and its visitor centre developed to give people a behind-the-scenes look at their fantastic marine conservation work. And honestly, baby lobsters are very, very cute (you may want to rethink that Thermidor…)
Boat Trips from Padstow
From sealife safaris to the short ferry trip across to Rock, there's a good choice of boat trips from Padstow. Take a fishing trip in Padstow's rich waters, or go for something a bit more relaxing with a cruise on the Jubilee Queen (complete with onboard bar. Dogs welcome).
As well as Padstow's visitor attractions, you're also close to some beautiful beaches. Take the footpath out of town, and you'll soon find yourself on the estuary's sandy shores. Or, if you're happy to make a short drive, the glorious North Coast opens out before you.
This sandy cove is just half a mile from the harbour, overlooking the Camel Estuary. This makes it sheltered, but not the best place for a swim due to the currents at this point. Still, if you're after a stretch of sand and a great picnic spot close to town's St George's is a winner.
Keep walking along the path towards the estuary mouth, and you'll soon reach Harbour Cove (also known as Tregirls). It's often quieter here, and as a bonus for pet parents, it's a dog-friendly beach.
Daymer Bay is another dog-friendly, sandy beach, a bit further up from Rock. It's close to the estuary mouth, across from Tregirls. It's a safer spot for swimming (although there's no lifeguard cover). Look out for St Enodoc Church near the beach, where poet John Betjeman is buried.
Take the ferry from Padstow harbour across to Rock, where you'll find golden sands (and possibly a Royal or two). It's a pleasant, sheltered beach, backed by sand dunes and overlooking the estuary. Possibly not eh best place for a dip, as the water here can get busy with pleasure craft.
This much-loved family beach has golden sands and safe swimming waters, and you can also bring your four-footed friends here all year round. There are sand dunes and rock pools to explore, or you can book a session with the surf school.
It's a short drive to Polzeath, but there is a car park here (on the beach!). The Blue Flag beach is a popular surf spot, although if you want a less strenuous day out, it's also a good spot for rockpooking and bird watching. Polzeath village has places to eat, drink and shop.
It takes about 25 minutes to drive to Bedruthan Steps from Padstow, but it's worth it for the dramatic views when you arrive. Pause at the National Trust cafe at Carnewas Cliff before taking the steep cliff path down to the sand. The “Steps” are actually slate outcrops, not the scrambly pathway you'll need to negotiate…
Places Close to Padstow
As well as being a lovely town itself, Padstow also makes a good base for the beautiful north coast and inland countryside. Here are a few places you could try.
It's a short trip by passenger ferry across the estuary to Rock. The former quiet village is now famous for its wealthy “second homers” and A-list visitors. This aside, it has a nice beach and a few places to eat (size of budget may vary). Rock is also home to a brewery, Sharp's, famous for its Doom Bar ale.
These villages are just a short drive from Padstow. Head this way for sandy beaches with good facilities or lovely coastal walks. Poet laureate John Betjeman had a home in Trebetherick, and is buried in St Enodoc Church nearby. Look out for the renowned golf course, the remains of shipwrecks and a good selection of cosy pubs.
Here with kids? You'll be glad to know that Camel Creek Adventure Park is nearby, with all sorts of shows, events and rides. There are also animals to meet, and plenty of places to grab a bite to eat.
Wadebridge is slightly inland and about 8 miles from Padstow. You could also cycle here along the Camel Trail, which is a bit shorter at 5.5 miles (although rather more energetic). This former market town is the largest centre in the area, so is a good place to come for shops, pubs and restaurants.
Padstow: Good to Know
Planning a trip to Padstow? Here's what you need to know.
Getting to Padstow
Padstow isn't the best for public transport, but the drive is fairly straightforward. Here's how to get here.
Padstow by Road
Like most Cornish journeys, you start by following the A30. Take the Bodmin exit, then follow signs for the A389 to Wadebridge. After a while, strat to see signs showing the A389 to Padstow.
The postcode for Padstow Town Car Park is PL28 8BL.
Padstow by Rail
The branch line to Padstow is now a cycle path (swings and roundabouts), but you can catch a train to mainline Bodmin Parkway station. From there, take the 11a bus to Padstow or take a taxi (warning: it's about half an hour's drive)
Padstow by Bus
You can get buses to Padstow from Newquay, Wadebridge and Bodmin Parkway. Find out more about Cornwall's bus service here.
Padstow by air
Padstow isn't far from Cornwall Airport Newquay, and you can actually get a direct bus. Find out more about flights into Cornwall from Newquay Airport's website.
Parking in Padstow
There are several large car parks in town, but be aware that these can get busy. There is a park and ride service from Wadebridge Road Tesco (PL28 8EX).
Where to Eat in Padstow
Come to Padstow if you love good food! As well as the Seafood Restaurant, Stein's empire includes the Cafe and St Petroc's Bistro (dogs welcome in the bar). Pucelli's offers superb Italian cuisine, or head to Green's for breakfast with a view. For a really special occasion, Paul Ainsworth at Number 6 is an elegant Michelin-starred restaurant.
Padstow and its surrounding villages are also excellent for pubs. There's a great choice of traditional old inns around Padstow, and of course, you can always find pasties, chips and ice cream if you prefer to eat on the go.
Where to stay in Padstow
There are elegant boutique hotels and holiday lets in the town, or head to the nearby villages for good value family accommodation. Take a look at our Cornwall accommodation listings to find out more about places to stay in Padstow.