What does North Bretton smell of?

This week we were really excited to be joined by smell-scape expert Kate McLean. Researcher and graphic designer by trade, Kate specialising in mapping smells in the cities.

As part of her intriguing practice she hosts ‘smell walks’ in which participants are invited to experience the world nose first! We wanted to bring the smell walking experience to North Bretton and see what comes to the fore when we shift our attention to other senses…

“You’re going to have to think like a dog” were our immediate orders from Kate, as we were handed our Smell-note, which we were to use to record the different smells we intercepted whilst we walked. As well as writing down the name of the smell, we were required to make note of its intensity, duration, if we liked or disliked the smell and whether or not it was expected…

Throughout the course of the walk we were introduced to two different modes of smelling: smell catching and smell hunting.

For the initial part of the walk we were smell catching; which is the more passive mode of the two. Smell catching demands that you keep your nostrils flared, but rather than seeking smells out you are rather required simply to become alert to the smells that intercept you while you walk.

At first some panicked that perhaps they couldn’t smell anything…and others of us found it hard to put smells into words…but we soon got the hang of it.  We were introduced to new words by smell walkers such as petrichor  which is “a pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of warm, dry weather.”

By the end of this section of the walk our North Bretton smell walkers had picked up on: flowers, cut grass, pollution, cherries, rubbish, rosemary, cars, ivy, dog poo, damp earth and cigarette smoke. We were surprised to identify an underlying cinnamon-y smell wafting around…

The second part, smell hunting, was about proactively seeking out smells, and allowing your curiosity to guide you.

Here our walkers were running all over the place, picking up and sniffing items that caught their eye, jumping up to grab intriguing looking flowers… and making sure to leave no stone unturned…


This time we identified more surprising smells such as: fish food, sweat, parma violets, chocolate, warmed plastic, minty leaves, (stinky) twigs, lilac, burnt wood, dust, milkshake, blossom, wood chips, bike tires and conkers! We were surprised to discover trees smelling of coconut and petals smelling of parma violets.

Smells became triggers for memories throughout: making mud-pies and perfume out of found petals when young. Rosemary became a short cut to Christmas dinner.

We discussed the phenomenon whereby whilst all your friends’ houses have specific, distinct smells, your own home is seemingly odourless: which Kate explained is a process of habituation in which you grow accustomed to, and stop noticing, smells you live with; a concern many dog owners have!

Later in the walk, we moved into a phase of ‘free smelling’; a combination of smell hunting and catching, and at this point our terrain had shifted as we moved away from the natural setting of the park and towards the commercial centre: the Premier Late shop and the surrounding establishments such as Baba’s. And by this point, some us found that our noses had become so attuned to natural scents that we found the arrival of more artificial smells quite affronting to our senses.

Moving into the late shop we test to see if different types of newspapers smell different…with no conclusion reached, as of yet.


To finish up we were handed a Smellscape Visualiser to list the smells we intercepted and using watercolours gestured to the intensity of the smells:

Here’s a glimpse of what we produced:

All this material will feed into stage 2 of Bretton Greens in our community exhibition and creative workshops 🙂

You can read more about Kate’s wonderful practice in the following articles:


Her next smell walk will be in New York, keep an eye out for when she is doing a walk near you!


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