A break in the Cornish fishing port is a must. Not only does it have fine food, a perfect setting and suberb beaches nearby, it's home to England's quirkiest tradition - the Obby Oss
Obby Oss festival
If you're lucky enough to be in Padstow on Mayday, you're in for a treat. Padstonians welcome in the month of May by parading through the town's narrow streets with accordions and drums following a man dressed as a horse (or an 'oss). The parade of the original "Old Oss" has been an annual occurrence since the 14th century – its followers dress in white with red ribbons and red headscarves.
Since the end of the Second World War a second Oss has joined the fun, collecting for charity and known as the "Peace Oss" – its followers wear white with blue trim.
The Old Oss leaves its "stables" at the Golden Lion pub at regular intervals for a gallop around town, as locals (and hundreds of camera-toting tourists) follow it and sing along to folk songs. Now and then the music will slow down and stop as the Oss "dies", only to be resurrected at chants of "Oss Oss Wee Oss!"
The best place to see the Oss is around the Maypole in Broad Street, which is beautifully decorated with bluebells, but beware – get too close and you risk getting a clip around the ear from the Oss's bin-lid-like head as it dances wildly!
It may sound a crazy tradition to outsiders, but Padstonians take it extremely seriously and even claim their Obby Oss once frightened off French invaders who thought it was the devil. Whether you'll agree is another thing, but I guarantee you'll not experience anything else like it. The atmosphere is electric in streets adorned with flags and lined with revellers here to have fun and see in the summer in style.
Pubs in Padstow are happy to serve you beer in plastic glasses and let you stroll around in search of the Oss, a simple enough task – just listen out for the beating drums.
A visit to Padstow at any time of year is just as rewarding. Here are my tips of what to see, do, eat and drink.
Ferry to Rock
Padstow is situated alongside the River Camel – the posh resort of Rock is a fifteen minute ferry ride across the Camel Estuary on the Black Tor Ferry (£3 return for adults, £2 return for children). Rock has a reputation for attracting affluent visitors – the Beckhams and Prince Harry have been spotted here, although we had to make do with Timothy Spall. A walk along the super-fine white sands of the Camel Estuary below Rock towards the river’s mouth will give you great views of Padstow.
The sandy beaches of north Cornwall are amongst the best in the world. Newquay and Watergate Bay have vast swathes of sand, which can get crowded in summer. Closer to Padstow are Daymer Bay, Harlyn Bay and Polzeath, although it tends to get very windy here – great for surfers and kitesurfers.
The Camel Trail is a popular 5-mile walking and cycling route along what used to be a railway line between Padstow and Wadebridge, running parallel to the Camel Estuary. Birdspotters will love it here – there's a colony of the rare heron, the little egret. There are several bike rental shops at the Wadebridge and Padstow ends of the trail - we got ours from Padstow Cycle Hire (South Quay; 01841 533533; www.padstowcyclehire.com) where mountain bikes cost £12 per day. The trail continues from Wadebridge to Bodmin if you’re feeling energetic.
This pleasure boat departs from Padstow for hourly cruises along the coastline and outlying islands for £5. The exact route will depend on the tide, but you’ll almost always cross the dreaded Doom Bar – a sand bank in the estuary where the River Camel meets the Atlantic, which has caused many ship-wrecks.
If you fancy a bit of retail therapy, you can easily pick up a new wardrobe in Padstow, especially if surfer-chic is your thing. Animal, Anne's Cottage and White Stuff all have boutiques here, although my favourite is Gul (16 Duke Street; www.gul.com/stores/padstow) where I stocked up on shorts and T-shirts.
The influence of TV chef Rick Stein can be found all over Padstow, and has led to the town being dubbed Padstein. For those with the cash to splash, try his Seafood Restaurant (Riverside, 01841 532700; www.rickstein.com/the-seafood-restaurant) where starters average £15 and mains are around £30. Much more affordable is Stein’s Fish and Chips (South Quay; www.rickstein.com/Steins-Fish-and-Chips) – a rare example of a chippy with a website, but for £6 and a fifteen minute queue, you’ll get a box of the nicest fish and chips you’ll ever have to take away.
Rick Stein specialises in seafood, but he’s been keen to muscle in on the pasty market. Stein’s Patisserie on Lanadwell Street sells cakes, pastries and good, peppery steak pasties for £2.70. But for my money (and that of my fiancee’s Padstonian grandad), the best pasty in Padstow is sold at Choughs (3 The Strand; www.thechoughbakery.co.uk) where £2.80 will buy you a satisfying, meaty pasty.
Rock has its own brewery – Sharp's – which makes the excellent Doom Bar bitter and Chalky's Bite, a 6.8%-strength ale inspired by the great beers of Belgium and named after Rick Stein's dog. You can buy beer at factory prices, as well as beer T-shirts and memorabilia from Sharp's Brewery shop (Pityme Business Park, Rock; 01208 862121; Monday – Friday 9am-5.30pm). Padstow’s pubs are small and friendly affairs with the Golden Lion and the London Inn in red Oss territory on Lanadwell Street, while the Old Ship (Mill Square; www.oldshiphotel-padstow.co.uk) is deep in the heart of blue Oss country, and is one of few pubs to serve the excellent Sharp’s Orchard cider (4.5%).
Where to stay
The Golden Lion Inn (19 Lanadwell Street) acts as the stables for the Old Oss and is the best place to stay and soak up the atmosphere on Mayday. Book well in advance – there are just three rooms above the pub (£70 for a double room with breakfast).
The Metropole Hotel (a 4* hotel in Station Road) has doubles with breakfast from £99 and is the grandest building in Padstow with great views of the town and the Camel Estuary. It’s also one of the only hotels in town with a car park, which is free for guests.
The Obby Oss festivities are held on 1st May unless 1st May happens to be a Sunday – in which case the event is moved to the following day, Monday 2nd May. In 2011, 1st May is a Sunday, so the big day will be on 2nd May 2011. 1st May 2012 falls on a Tuesday.