Manchester: Scents & the city

Are you tired of sightseeing? Then why not try a smell tour instead. Jonathan Brown follows his nose around the streets of Manchester

It is with a sense of Proustian anticipation that we descend the steps off Manchester's Oxford Street into the dank basin of the Bridgewater Canal. Not for us the sweet aroma of dipped madeleines to trip off memories of days past – rather the stench of stale urine from the night before giving way to the waft of cold, rubbish-filled water tinged with notes of spilled lager.

Click HERE to view 'The great smells of Manchester: A visitor's guide' graphic

We are on a smell walk, and our guide for the day is Dr Victoria Henshaw, the UK's leading expert on the interplay of odours and the environment who has led similar strolls all over the world.

On a rainy Friday morning, she is burrowing into Manchester's nooks and crannies with a group curious to experience the city from a new sensory perspective. As she leads us up a dingy back alley to sample the extraction fans belching grease-filled air from the hot kitchens of Chinatown, she says few people are aware of just how profoundly they are affected by smell.

"Some people genuinely think we would be better off without it. It is often associated with bad things – things that stink," she said. "As a society we place great emphasis on the way things look but we often deny we are animals and that the sense of smell gives us a lot of life-or-death information."

"We can literally sniff out danger – a wild animal that might threaten us – or smell protection and safety. If we have eaten something that has made us sick we need to be able to recognise it again quickly."

So powerful is the interplay between the sense of smell, memory and experience that designers, architects and tourism chiefs are now beginning to scent the potential power of aromas to transform the way we live and travel.

In Grasse in the South of France, for instance, a thriving tourist industry has grown up based on the region's manufacture of perfume.

Marketers are experimenting with ways to sell holidays by transplanting unique smells from a destination to entice travellers to return there just as they do with coffee and bread.

Meanwhile, cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh are exploring the potential for art and history trails in which people are guided as much by the nose as the eye.

Alongside the malodorous canalside, a reminder of Thursday night's revelries, Manchester was yesterday giving off a general smell of damp pavements alongside a perma-fug of cigarettes and the olfactory lure of coffee chains.

As Dr Henshaw explained, much of what made the place unique has gradually begun to disappear. Many locals still miss the old industrial smells and those of the individual food shops which have fallen victim to the sanitised aroma-scape of the supermarkets and shopping malls. "Just as people complain about clone towns which all look the same and have the same shops, so we are creating places which all smell the same," she said.

Modern building materials and vehicle pollution mask smells, while environmental regulations require manufactured odours to be pumped into the air safely away from our noses.

The rich, of course, did not wait for such changes – they began to move away from the inner city in the 18th century. Cities in the west coast of Britain consciously put their affluent neighbourhoods up wind, leaving poorer communities to the east ends of places like Glasgow and Carlisle. But that is changing, as inner cities are redeveloped – and those in charge begin to think about scents as well as sights.

Kerri Farnsworth, a project director who has worked on the regeneration of Liverpool, Budapest and Riga centres, said: "The whole key to getting people to live in a city is to ensure the experience they have there is positive."

Back on the Manchester smell walk, several members of the group say that their nasal workout will have a lasting impact on the attention they pay to odour. "I have now spent an hour and a half thinking about smell which is the longest I think I have ever thought about it," said Alex Thorp, an educator with Manchester Art Gallery.

Morag Rose's nose, meanwhile, is already pointing elsewhere: "My favourite smell was my Nan but I also like the smell of a Ginger Marble beer in a really nice pub because that means I am going to have a nice night out."

Background: The science of smell

Although writers and chefs have long known that smells can evoke powerful feelings and memories, it was not until 1991 that science began to explain why humans are able to recognise 10,000 odours so intensely. US researchers Richard Axel and Linda Buck discovered a family of 1,000 genes, each giving rise to an equivalent number of olfactory receptor types in the nose.

Each highly specialised receptor can detect only a limited number of odours, which it translates into nerve processes that are relayed directly to the brain, enabling us to experience a smell. Axel and Buck were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery in 2004.

Suggested Topics
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Arts and Entertainment
Danish director Lars von Trier
filmEnglish-language series with 'huge' international cast set for 2016
Life and Style
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Junior Software Developer - Newcastle, Tyne & Wear - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Junior Web Developer / J...

Systems Administrator (SharePoint) - Central London - £36,500

£35000 - £36500 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator (SharePoint) -...

Biology Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: We are currently recruiting...

.NET Developer / Web Developer / Software Developer - £37,000

£30000 - £37000 per annum + attractive benefits: Ashdown Group: .NET Developer...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering