It feels like a festival in Padstow but it’s just an ordinary Saturday. The harbour is full of people, some walking along the seafront, others spilling from pub gardens, guzzling cups of local Rattler cider and Doom Bar beer. Children sit for facepainting and hairbraids, or dangling their flip flops over the harbour wall and eyeballing the nearest ice cream shop.
Then there’s the food. Punters hold aloft steaming bagfuls of pasties, others their cones of chunky chips, while most fingers are made shiny from flaky fish in batter. These days, Padstow has become known as the seaside food capital of Cornwall.
Celebrity chef Rick Stein has definitely contributed to this culture. Since opening his first kitchen here in 1974, Stein has built a little empire in Padstow, complete with bistro, cafe, cooking school, fish and chip shop, gift shop and even holiday rentals. So ubiquitous does his presence feel that the place has earned the nicknamed ‘Padstein’ and there are rumours the locals resent the traffic and busy summer season.
However, John Buckingham, local historian and curator of the Padstow museum, assures me this is not the case. ‘It’s only journalists coming here that refer to it as Padstein,’ he jokes, suggesting that the chef’s contribution to the town’s popularity has been overblown. ‘Rick Stein might have put Padstow on the map, more or less,’ he says, ‘but it had been on the map before.’
While today it seems people come to Padstow to eat, they used to come to the sandy town for more lucrative opportunities. The estuary, set among the jagged north coast, provided a pocket of relative calm for ships, making it a natural location for a port. As this Discovering Britain trail takes you through the harbour, you can see that today it is dotted with fishing boats and small leisure cruisers. It was built, however, for long-distance trading. From Elizabethan times, the stone harbour would have been wall to wall with vessels sending out Cornish slate, lead ores, tin and fish, and bringing in Welsh coal.
CORNWALL TO CANADA
Centuries later, during the 1800s, crowds flocked to Padstow for a different reason entirely: to leave it and Cornwall forever. Cornish miners, who were world-leading in their craft, sought opportunities in the rest of the British Isles as well as Latin America, the United States, Canada, Australia and South Africa. Between 1815 and 1914, as many as half a million people left Cornwall, with half of those finding work elsewhere in Britain and the other half emigrating overseas. The exodus reached unprecedented levels in the mid-19th century after the potato famine and the crash in Cornish copper. Around 20 per cent of the male population migrated abroad each decade from 1861 to 1901, three times the average for England and Wales. It resulted in a worldwide diaspora. Padstow, which had been exporting Cornish goods, was now exporting Cornish people.
The port’s location on the northwest shore, and thriving shipbuilding industry, made it a key route for North America, specifically for Canada’s Québec and Prince Edward Island. In 1841 it became the third largest departure point to these destinations, surpassed only by London and Liverpool.
As a destination, Canada worked especially well owing to the cargo the ships could return with, usually valuable Canadian timber used for more shipbuilding. ‘Padstow ship owners were quick to seize the opportunity this two-way traffic offered,’ says Buckingham. ‘People going out and prime Canadian timber coming back. Profits were assured.’
The area’s tangerine-coloured sand, shallow blue waters and rolling hillsides would have been the last of England many emigrants were to see. The crossing to Canada took around six weeks, and most who left never returned. ‘Some families might have followed their relatives to Canada,’ says Buckingham. ‘They might have received a letter about how promising it was and taken another ship years later, some members as old as 80.’
Padstow’s blessing of a sheltered inlet was also its curse. To get a good look at why, the trail heads inland and upwards, away from Padstow and up Dennis Hill. From the top, there is a commanding view of the sea, the Camel Estuary, and the sheer amount of sand within it. Sediment comes up from the sea to collect in the pocket of the River Camel, where it stays, clotting into bars of sand across the water. Nearest, is the sweeping sands of the Padstow ‘Town Bar’, which is so thick only a narrow channel of water allows access to the town’s harbour.
However, more treacherous still is the infamous Doom Bar, which partially blocks the river mouth on the east side, like a long, deadly tooth. Legend has it that the bar was caused by a vengeful mermaid, when she was shot at by a local. In her rage, she cursed the town with this wall of sand. The Doom Bar’s notoriety inspired the cask ale of the same name.
‘The Doom Bar has claimed many ships,’ says Buckingham. Since the 19th century there have been more than 600 shipping incidents thanks to the sandy obstruction, most of them resulting in wrecks. Before the advent of steam ships, sail boats would be carried by strong winds blowing from west to east towards the bar. Braking with anchors was futile – they could not grasp a hold in the sand. ‘It is one of the main reasons shipping to Padstow dwindled after the 19th century,’ says Buckingham. ‘When larger vessels became more common, it was difficult for them to pass the Doom Bar.’
If commerce couldn’t come from the water, perhaps it could come from inland. Turning to the southwest, it is possible from the top to see the railway bridge and old route of the trains that would snake around the base of the hill towards the town. When the train connection was established at the start of the 20th century, there were direct trains to London, allowing fishermen to sell their catch directly to the capital. The station became even busier with the arrival of city visitors, who were happy to spend money on the local seafood, produce, and hotels. Although the station closed in 1967, Padstow’s economy had reached the next stage of its evolution: tourism. Since then, the town has identified more and more as a coastal destination.
It didn’t take long for the first opportunists to make the most of the long, flat route left behind by the old train. The very year the track was dismantled, the first bike hire in Cornwall was set up along its old route. The pathway became the Camel Trail, a family-friendly cycle path attracting 350,000 tourists every year. Seeing the stream of glinting metal frames moving over the bridge seems symbolic of Padstow’s inventive spirit. The place has seen many changes over the centuries but, like all resilient coastal towns, it has always made the best of the latest catch.
This was published in the August 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.