In the medieval period Padstow was commonly called Aldestowe (as the ‘old place’ in contrast to Bodmin the ‘new place’). The modern Cornish form Lannwedhenek derives from Lanwethinoc and in a simpler form appears in the name of the Lodenek Press, a publisher based in Padstow.
The church of St Petroc is one of a group of three said to have been founded by the saint, the others being Little Petherick and Bodmin. It is quite large and mostly of 13th and 14th century date. There is a fine font of Catacleuse stone which is 15th century: the pulpit of ca. 1530 is also of interest. There are two fine monuments to members of the Prideaux family (Sir Nicholas, 1627 and Edmund, 1693): there is also a monumental brass of 1421.
During the mid-nineteenth century, ships carrying timber from Canada (particularly Quebec City) would arrive at Padstow and offer cheap travel to passengers wishing to emigrate. Shipbuilders in the area would also benefit from the quality of their cargoes. Among the ships that sailed were the barques clio, Belle and Voluna; and the brig Dalusia.
The approach from the sea into the River Camel is partially blocked by the Doom Bar, a bank of sand extending across the estuary which is a significant hazard to shipping and the cause of many shipwrecks.
For ships entering the estuary, the immediate loss of wind due to the cliffs was a particular hazard, often resulting in ships being swept onto the Doom Bar. A manual capstan was installed on the west bank of the river (its remains can still be seen) and rockets were fired to carry a line to ships so that they could be winched to safety.
Traditionally a fishing port, Padstow is now a popular tourist destination. Although some of its former fishing fleet remains, it is mainly a yachting haven on a dramatic coastline with few easily navigable harbours. The influence of restaurateur Rick Stein can be seen in the port, and tourists travel from long distances to eat at his restaurant or cafés.
From 1899 until 1967 Padstow railway station was the westernmost point of the former Southern Railway. The station was the terminus of an extension from Wadebridge of the former Bodmin and Wadebridge Railway and North Cornwall Railway. These lines were part of the London and South Western Railway (LSWR), then incorporated into the Southern Railway in 1923 and British Railways in 1948, but were proposed for closure during the Beeching Axe of the 1960s.
The LSWR (and Southern Railway) promoted Padstow as a holiday resort; these companies were rivals to the Great Western Railway (which was the larger railway in the West of England). Until 1964, Padstow was served by the Atlantic Coast Express – a direct train service to/from London (Waterloo) – but the station was closed in 1967. The old railway line is now the Camel Trail,a footpath and cycle path which is popular owing to its picturesque route beside the River Camel. One of the railway mileposts is now embedded outside the Shipwright’s Arms public house on the Harbour Front.
Footpaths, Walking and Cycling
The South West Coast Path runs on both sides of the River Camel estuary and crosses from Padfstow to Rock via the Black Tor ferry. The path gives walking access to the coast with Stepper Point and Trevose Head within an easy day’s walk of Padstow.
The Camel Trail cycleway follows the course of the former railway (see above) from Padstow. It is open to walkers, cyclists and horse riders and suitable for disabled access. The 17.3 miles (27.8 km) long route leads to Wadebridge and on to Wenford Bridge and Bodmin.
Padstow is best renowned for its May day celebrations. Though its origins are unclear, it possibly stems from an ancient fertility ceremony, possibly the Celtic Beltane festival. The May day celebrations begin at midnight on May Eve when townsfolk gather outside the Golden Lion Inn to sing the “Night Song”. By morning, Padstow has been dressed with foliage and flowers placed around the Maypole. The festivities begin with the appearance of one of the Obby Osses. Male dancers frolic through Padstow dressed as one of two Obby Osses, the “Old” and the “Blue Ribbon” Oss. As the name suggests, they’re loosely based on the form of horses. Prodded on by acolytes referred to as “Teasers”, each wearing a mask and black frame-hung cape underneath which they try to catch young maidens as they are going through Padstow.
Throughout the day, the two parades, led by the “Mayer” in his top hat and decorated stick, followed by a band of accordions and drums, then the ‘Oss and the Teaser, with a host of people – all singing the “Morning Song”.pass along the streets of the town, never meeting. Finally, late in the evening, the two ‘osses do meet, at the maypole, before returning to their respective stables where the crowd sings of the ‘Obby ‘Oss death, until its resurrection the following May Eve.
On Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, it is a tradition for some residents to don blackface and parade through the town singing ‘minstrel‘ songs. This is an ancient British midwinter celebration that occurs every year in Padstow and was originally part of the pagan heritage of midwinter celebrations that were regularly celebrated all over Cornwall where people would guise dance and disguise themselves by blackening up their faces or wearing masks. (Recently the people of Penzance have revived its midwinter celebration with the Montol Festival which like Padstow at times would have had people darkening or painting their skin to disguise themselves as well as masking.)