Padstow – a beautiful, ancient harbour town in Cornwall

The Colourful History Of Padstow

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Donald Rawe is a local author and playwright who has written several books on the Padstow area and its history and several plays about St. Petroc.

Padstow has been attracting visitors for a very long time. Over 4000 years ago, even before the building of the Pyramids, it is thought that travellers used the Fowey/Camel Valley on their journeys from Brittany to Ireland. By using this route, known as “The Saints Way”, the traitorous sea passage around Land’s End could be avoided.

But it was St. Petroc’s arrival on the shores of the River Camel in the 6th Century that really put Padstow on the map. St Petroc was reputed to be the son of a Welsh Prince. He studied theology in Ireland and then founded a monastery at Lanwethinoc (which later became know as Petrocston, and then ultimately Padstow). Unfortunately the monastery was destroyed by the Vikings in the 10th century. Having lived in Padstow for thirty years, Petroc made a pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem, and supposedly reached the Indian Ocean living there for a time on an island as a hermit. On his eventual return to Cornwall he founded yet more hermitages and monasteries. He died in Wales, c. 594 and was buried in Padstow.

In medieval times Padstow was granted the “right of sanctuary” by King Athelstan. This enabled criminals to remain safe from arrest, and the right of sanctuary continued until the time of the Reformation. Eventually the church’s control ceased when the ownership of the land was transferred to the Prideaux family.

As time went buy Padstow continued to develop as a fishing and trading port and as a shipbuilding centre. In the 16th century the port gave shelter to Sir John Hawkins as he made his way back from the West Indies and also to Sir Martin Frobisher on his way back from his search for the North West Passage to China in 1577. Most famously of all Sir Walter Raleigh lived in Padstow for a time when he was Warden of Cornwall and his Court House on Riverside was the administrative center for the collection of taxes and dues. Unfortunately, though still standing, the Court House and his cottage are not open to the public.

In the 17th century mining was expanding in Cornwall and copper ore and slates were exported. The heyday of the Port was reached in the 19th century by which time a number of shipbuilding yards had been established and the fishing industry was at its peak. Cured fish of many types, especially pilchards, as well as wheat, barley, oats, cheese and minerals were being exported.

Padstow used to be the Cornish terminus of the Southern Railway and there was a direct train service from London Waterloo to Padstow, “The Atlantic Coast Express”. Sadly Padstow station became a casualty of Dr Beeching’s cuts in the 60’s, which meant that the nearest railway station became Bodmin Parkway. Gone with the station was a stretch of railway line from Wadebridge to Padstow that had the most stunning views across the Camel Estuary. All was not quite lost however as the old rail track became the ‘Camel Trail’, a very popular cycle and pedestrian link between Padstow and Wadebridge (cycle hire is available in both towns).

With the closure of the railway line Padstow’s decline seemed to be complete. But in common with many West Country seaside towns, Padstow is now enjoying a renaissance. Certainly a big impetus for this has come from the success of Rick Stein in building his restaurant and reputation on his association with the town.

Rick has been running the Seafood Restaurant since the seventies and he has seen it grow from a seaside bistro to an award-winning restaurant with an international reputation. As he tells it, Rick had not originally set out to become an award-winning chef. He took a degree in English at Oxford and after spending a few years running a discotheque he bought a nightclub in Padstow. It was because the nightclub failed to do well that Rick turned to food as a way out. The upshot was that he opened a restaurant specialising in freshly caught local produce – supplied by the fishermen who had once frequented his club!

Donald Rawe is a local author and playwright who has written several books on the Padstow area and its history and several plays about St. Petroc.