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The Great Pong: Gas leak in Rouen, France, leaves foul-smelling cloud of gas wafting over southern England

Emergency services inundated with concerned phone calls

We can’t call it The Great Stink.  That name’s taken.  It refers to the summer of 1858 in London, when the smell of poo and other unmentionables coming from the Thames was so bad that Parliament had to stop sitting, and a whole new sewer system was commissioned. But we could perfectly well call it The Great Pong.

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For it was definitely a pong – a pong of rotten eggs, most people said, although less delicate souls used the word farts – and it was most certainly great, yesterday blanketing much of southern England like a weather system, a smell so prominent and so unpleasant that people called their local fire brigade, or the National Grid, in their tens of thousands.

And guess what? It came from France, zis Great Pong.  What was it then, you foul-smelling Froggies?  The stench of one of your giant rotten cheeses, hein?  The whiff of a colossal clove of your unspeakable garlic? Alas, nothing so picturesque. 

It was a gas cloud which had escaped from a factory in Rouen in Normandy, and the gas was mercaptan, which is added to odour-free natural gas so that gas escapes can be detected, as its own odour (although the gas is harmless) is among the most powerful of all – detectable in concentrations as tiny as one part in 2.8 billion.

They certainly thought so in Rouen – it so affected things in the city that last night’s football match between Rouen and Olympique Marseille had to be postponed – and they certainly thought so on this side of the Channel, when the gas cloud had drifted across.

“It's disgusting. It's just like gone-off egg. Absolutely disgusting. What is it?” said Susan Smith, as she shepherded her deliriously laughing children through the barriers at Redhill Station in Surrey. “It's from France? They don't even like eggs do they? I'm supposed to be doing beef bourguignon tonight. That's put me right off.” Too right, Susan!  You don’t need to bugger up good English beef with fancy Froggie sauces!

People in coastal towns in Kent and Sussex noticed it first, then by mid-afternoon the mind-boggling pong  had spread not only through Surrey to Greater London, but out across the country in a wide arc, with reports coming in from Oxfordshire and even as far north as Northampton in the East Midlands, and Dorset in the West.

People feared a gas leak which might be really dangerous. The National Grid, which would normally deal with up to 10,000 calls countrywide in a day, was inundated with more than 100,000 calls by 2pm. A spokesman said it was an "unprecedented" volume. Fire brigades were also faced mass inquisitions. London Fire Brigade tweeted, on its official twitter account: “Listen carefully I shall say zis in only 140 characters; we attended 42 calls today due to the French gas cloud over London alloallo”

The Health Protection agency offered reassurance. “It is an unpleasant odour which may cause some people to feel slightly nauseous but it is not toxic and will dispel naturally,” the HPA said in a statement.

According to the French interior ministry, the factory at the centre of the leak is owned by Lubrizol, a subsidiary of investor Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway group; there was no word last night on the cause of the leak.

That’s if it did come from the factory.  Maybe they’re just saying that, the Froggies. For who knows what devilish giant cheese they might actually have developed?

Who knows how big a clove of garlic might actually get, once they put their minds to it?