When I mention to people that I love the smell of London, they usually make a quip about smog and exhaust fumes. Like most big cities, London has its fair share of unsavoury odours. The musty smell of the Thames at low tide is the least irksome of them, but I would paint an olfactory portrait of London with the freshness of daffodils in Kew Gardens, the antique-wood sweetness of the National Portrait Gallery and the pungency of the spices at Portobello Road Market. I would add the heady, creamy accent of Neal’s Yard Dairy for the rich base notes.
Living in London, I took all these scents for granted; they were a part of the city I loved. But I didn’t give them much thought. Only once I moved away did I realise I missed not only the Tate Modern and British TV but also the green aroma of Columbia Road Flower Market, the sharpness of coffee aroundSt Katharine Docks and the smoky incense of Camden Town. I even longed for a musty whiff of the Thames. I wondered whether someone had thought to capture London in a perfume bottle. Had any British perfumer explored the idea?
I quickly noted that for those interested in artisanal perfumery, the British houses offer a great choice, from the opulent Roja Parfums masterminded by Roja Dove to the refined simplicity of Miller Harris. Over the past decade, a number of heritage collections have been revived, such Grossmith and Atkinsons, while Floris, Yardley of London and Penhaligon’s – perfumeries tracing their roots to the 18th and 19th centuries – remain vibrant and exciting.
My first stop was at a Miller Harris counter, where I sampled the range of fragrances inspired by founder Lyn Harris’s travels and experiences. One of my instant loves was the Coeur de Fleur eau de parfum (£65 for 50ml), a bouquet of sweet pea and mimosa now sadly discontinued but available at the Miller Harris outlet at Bicester Village, or through the bespoke service. The perfume smelled so realistically of a florist shop that it gave me a glimpse of Columbia Road’s flower stalls.
Like Miller Harris, Ormonde Jayne is the project of a passionate entrepreneur. Linda Pilkington collaborates with perfumer Geza Schoen to create her perfume collection, and her fragrances are simultaneously elegant and quirky. My favourites were the rich eau de parfum blends such as Tolu, Champaca, and Ta’if (all £80 for 50ml), which smelled more of the tropics than of London, but I was delighted to discover a smoky pepper note in Orris Noir (£80 for 50ml), reminiscent of the Tellicherry pepper I used to buy from The Spice Shop in Notting Hill.
I had even more success capturing the scents of Queen Mary’s Gardens. Thanks to Penhaligon’s delicate Elisabethan Rose eau de toilette (£65 for 50ml)and Czech & Speake’s lush No.88 cologne spray (£85 for 100ml), I was generously showered with rose petals. Rose formed only one part of my London scent portrait, but it was an important one, and the British rose perfumes didn’t disappoint.
While my ideal London fantasy in a perfume bottle remains to be discovered (or, perhaps, created), the search itself is so enjoyable that I don’t feel like giving it up. In the meantime, there is always a wedge of Stilton and a glass of port to satisfy my London cravings. Luckily for me, Neal’s Yard Dairy exports.