Not many people are as synonymous with a place as Rick Stein is with Padstow. Dotted around the harbour of this quaint fishing town, the celebrity chef boasts four restaurants, a cookery school, a deli, a gift shop, a fishmongers and a patisserie – alongside an abundance of luxury rooms across eight different properties.
Rick’s son Jack, who is chef director at his dad’s restaurants, took some time out of his busy morning of prep at the flagship Seafood Restaurant to tell me how optimistic they are – especially after today’s vaccine approval news. “Although it’s a strange situation to be in, we’re hopeful about the coming weeks,” said Stein. “We’re really fortunate that Cornwall has managed to keep its cases low. We’re also fortunate that we’re now in Tier 1, but I’m well aware of the horrifying hospitality situation in bigger cities right now.”
“We have to try and take the positives and make the most of the situation,” Stein continued. We’ve been working on Rick Stein at Home boxes which have had an incredible take-up, and we will 100 per cent continue with those even once we get back to normal. Cornwall has become the number one staycation destination for a lot of people, which is great news for us going forward.”
Padstow is clearly making the most of the Tier 1 placement. Since news broke of the town becoming just one of three lowest tier English destinations, table bookings have been flooding in, while their rooms are also ready for visitors looking for a festive getaway. I’m staying in a cosy room above the restaurant where extra precautions are in place to make guests feel comfortable, including health checks, additional sanitation procedures and socially distanced breakfasts.
This week, those aforementioned guests would normally be flooding in for the annual Christmas Festival, which takes over Padstow’s pretty harbour. As I write this, the jolly sounds and festive smells of a Christmas market should be illuminating the atmospheric streets, but it’s quieter than I anticipated – even with the festival cancellation.
While some business owners opt to remain closed for the time being, others are joyful that customers are returning. “Can we sit in today?,” asks one confused caffeine seeker at popular cafe Cherry Trees. “Yes! Come in!,” exclaims the barista. The sense of relief is evident here. I’m here not just for my first coffee shop experience in a while, but also to meet Tina Evans, chairman of Padstow Tourism and organiser of the festival.
“We were obviously really disappointed that the festival had to be cancelled,” says Evans. “On the weekend of the 2018 festival, we welcomed more than 45,000 visitors to our small town and generated around £5 million for local businesses. Market visitors spend a lot more in shops than they do in the summer.”
“We have plans in place to return next year over the weekend of December 2-5,” Evans continued. “We’ll have cooking demonstrations by top chefs, and local traders selling preserves, chocolate, homewares and more.”
Cherry Trees overlooks a normally bustling quay where the lively Christmas market would be; today, the streets are much quieter, though I suspect it will pick up by the weekend. Despite the low hum there’s a spring in the step of the locals who are meeting their friends and family over a drink for the first time in a month, with many just happy to be able to sit in their favourite café again.
As I take a stroll around the mazy streets around the back of the harbour, I’m greeted by the extremely Instagrammable cobbled street The Drang, home to a pocket of retailers including wine merchant and bar BinTwo. Surprisingly, despite being allowed to open both business arms, they’ve decided to only reopen their bottle shop for the time being.
“Our boss Mike has been great with us. We weren’t comfortable opening back up as a bar and he was fine with that,” says staff member Susi Delisle. “It’s a strange situation to be in. It’s quiet today; some places aren’t reopening and others won’t be until January. We’re just glad that we can reopen as a bottle shop.”
“What we will lose from the bar being closed we hope we will pick up from online sales in the run up to Christmas. We have a lot of wine club members who will keep us going.”
Padstow’s sprightly spirit offers a glimmer of hope for the English towns and cities who themselves could too fall under Tier 1 when the situation is reviewed on December 16 (and every 14 days thereafter). For now, those looking for a calming coastal escape this side of Christmas could perhaps consider Padstow for world-class cuisine, fresh sea air and, of course, a pint in a pub... without a scotch egg in sight.