The History of Padstow
The area in which Padstow stands was home to Celtic tribes from the Iron Age onwards, though the nature of the population fluctuated as groups migrated between other Celtic centres in Ireland and Brittany, or simply passed through on trading expeditions. For example, large numbers of Venetii from Brittany arrived in Cornwall in the 1st century BC under pressure from the Romans .
It is fascinating that two great Padstow traditions, its May Day ’obby ’oss , and Darkie Day on Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, probably both originate or at least have their roots in Celtic times, the former event linked to Beltane, the latter to celebrations to mark the shaking off of the old year and the heralding of the new.
The Romans seem to have known the district, but it is not clear if they established a settlement where Padstow is now found. A village called Lanwethinoc which doubtless benefitted from the natural harbour within a sheltered inlet, existed by the time St Petroc arrived sometime around 520. Petroc, Cornwall’s patron saint, founded a monastery and spent 30 years or so there before his legendary travels to Rome and the Indies.
Athelstan , King of Wessex, gained control of parts of Cornwall in the mid-10th century, and is said to have granted the settlement the right of sanctuary among other privileges. But later any links with Wessex proved powerless to prevent the Danes raiding in 981, destroying Petroc’s monastery and pillaging the area.
What had been Lanwethinoc became Petrocston thanks to its association with the saint, but sometime in the Middle Ages it appears St Petroc and St Patrick became confused in the minds of local authorities or scribes, hence the modern name Padstow – Patrick’s holy place.
The church owned and governed the town until Tudor times, when Henry VIII ’s Dissolution and the Protestant Reformation changed the political and ecclesiastical landscape: the Prideaux family became Lords of the Manor then, their home Prideaux Place built during the reign of Elizabeth I . In the same era Walter Raleigh , appointed Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall and Warden of the Stanneries (Cornish tin mines) in 1585, lived in the town, governing from the Riverside Court House.
Padstow’s harbour exported tin, copper ore, and slate in great quantities in that and the following century, as well as hosting a large fishing fleet; it also gave shelter to some of the great figures of our maritime heritage on occasion, among them Martin Frobisher and John Hawkins .
In the 19th century the port remained busy, thanks to its use by ships importing timber from Canada, a trade that gave the local shipbuilders a reputation for using quality materials. But hard times in the tin industry limited outward trade; instead returning timber ships gave cheap passage to the Americas for those impoverished by the fading fortunes of the stanneries.
Cornwall’s time as quasi-separate in cultural and economic terms from the rest of Britain ended in 1859 when the Albert Bridge across the Tamar connected the county to the railway network; the railways, however, took a further 40 years to arrive in Padstow. But the days when The Atlantic Coast Express carried passengers between Padstow and London ended in 1967 thanks to Beeching’s cuts.
In spite – or perhaps in part because of – its perceived remoteness, Padstow flourishes today as a tourist destination of a particular type, thanks to the work of chef and restaurateur Rick Stein whose various establishments draw gourmets and gourmands from all over Britain and beyond – some now refer to the town only half-jokingly as Padstein.