10 British Smells You’ll Miss When You Leave the U.K.


Freshly mowed grass in the U.S. smells ace but it’s just not the same as in the U.K. (YELL)

Your nose is a delicate, easily offended piece of equipment. Move out of the country and your British-born snout will mourn these familiar British scents.

Cut grass
The scent of freshly mowed British lawn—then later sweetly putrefying silage—is our most comforting outdoorsy smell. It cannot be satisfactorily replicated anywhere else in the world. Bonus points, anyone, if you can proffer a believable theory as to why this might be.

Chip shops
It’s the alluring blend of three smells: fish, vegetable oil and vinegar. Or, if you’re a purist, replace the oil with hot lard. To a fragile southerner like myself, however, the manure-like scent of heated beef dripping (more commonly used to cook F&Cs up north) isn’t pleasant so much as something I’m prepared to endure for the greater good. The greater good in this instance being the incontrovertibly superior taste of fish and chips frazzled in animal fat.

Pubs and stale ale
True, this intoxicating scent lost some of its allure after the smoking ban came into force in 2007, accidentally unmasking the smell of pub loos. Still, there’s something undeniably pleasant about the tang that smacks you in the shnoz upon entering any old man type boozer. It’s yeast, musty upholstery and concentrated time warp.

Kitchens in British homes smell of the food flecked suds we leave on the washing up, and tea at varying stages of freshness. There are the bags currently brewing; the half drunk cups that went cold that morning and the collection of spent teabags clogging the sink or heaped on a saucer. (Quite why Brits have an aversion to sticking used bags straight in the bin is unclear.) To the untrained nose, this will all seem pretty repulsive. What can I say? It’s the cultural equivalent of quite liking the smell of your own farts.

Piped bakery smell in supermarkets
The taste of anything procured in a British supermarket bakery is infinitely inferior to the drool-making scent they pump into the shop, presumably to make us hungry and spendy. It’s freshly baked bread and lightly burnt sugar. Doesn’t matter what supermarket you’re in or which demographic it serves: that Great British baking smell is ubiquitous and utterly lovely.

You forget just how much precipitation goes down in the U.K. until you head back for a fortnight and end up rained in and watching non-stop Come Dine With Me while grazing on boxes of Celebrations. Somehow British rain is wetter and smellier than American rain. The latter must be down to the mineral makeup of our H2O. British rain has a potent bouquet of metal, rotting flora and tangy earth.

Greasy spoons
Our version of a diner, traditionally serving variations on a full English breakfast, has a very specific smell: cheap sausages and Stork margarine. It’s probably revolting to anyone who didn’t grow up with it. Their loss, I say.

A roast
Of course, there’s nothing to stop you roasting up a feast in the U.S., then breathing in the aroma. But you’ll never find that glorious meat and potato, slow roasted stench in pubs over here, tickling your nostrils while you sup warm beer on a Sunday.

Fill up the car back home and you’re hit by a uniquely British, sickly creamy petrol smell. It makes some people want to vomit and others (myself included) want to suck it down into our lungs. I’m assuming that American car engines are fed the same diet as their U.K. counterpart, but I swear the smell is completely different.

Every high street in the U.K. has at least one curry house. The quality varies but the smell, wafting out onto the street and tempting you inside, is the same wherever you go: spices, ghee (clarified butter) and rich meaty goodness.

Which British olfactory memories do you most treasure? Tell us below:

See more:
10 Items You Should Stock Up on When You Visit Britain
10 American Substitutes for British Grocery Staples
Food Memories: What Do You Miss From Britain?

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • Lamarr Blocker-Throckmorton

    Is your petrol unleaded or leaded?

    • Derek


      • gn

        With the exception war and violence, leaded fuel may be the worst thing that happened in the 20th century. It’s estimated that the removal/reduction of leaded fuel led to a 56% drop in violent crime in the US.

  • http://www.christinascucina.com Christina Conte

    So happy to see cut grass at the top! I’ve always wondered why does American grass not have the same smell? Probably the same reason our cucumbers don’t smell like cucumbers, or various other fruits and veg! :(

    • Sara

      Christina, I certainly hope you’re not saying grass in America is somehow inferior to that grown in the UK because it smells different when it’s been freshly cut. There are so many varieties of grass grown in the US depending on soil conditions, climate, and intended use. They all look, feel and smell different.

      • BrashHulk

        Since when has the word ‘different’ become a synonym for ‘inferior’? You should take a moment to pause and relax, because you sound like a shrill jingoist.

      • http://www.christinascucina.com Christina Conte

        Why is there always someone who must take offense at a stated fact. I don’t believe I said “inferior” or implied “inferior”, Sara. I have a feeling you have never smelled cut grass in the UK, or else you would never have commented as you did.

      • frozen01

        Goodness gracious, people… Sara said “I certainly hope you’re not saying”. And I don’t blame her for getting the impression that this is what Christina was implying, after saying our cucumbers don’t smell like cucumbers, especially when the comments on this website tends to get a bit over-nostalgic at the expense of the object of the nostalgia’s American counterpart.

        And Christina, saying that there are many different types of grass, climate, and soil is just fact. There is no such thing as “American grass”. It has nothing to do with whether or not you have experienced cut grass in the UK.

    • LMJ

      It’s interesting how smells change from one place to another. Cut grass in Colorado doesn’t smell the same as in Ohio (spent waaay too much time cutting both); doesn’t surprise me at all that it smells completely different in the UK. Different soils, different components in the precipitation, in the humidity, the air, they all make a difference.

  • Jeffrey Howarth

    There’s rye seed in the grass right?

  • viks

    The piped in smell in supermarkets is due to the air con systems. Im my store. We pump the hot air from one area into the colder isles and the cold air from the fridges etc into the warmer areas. Energy saving yadda yadda

  • Jennifer K Cosham

    You spelled “you’re” wrong under “Petrol.”

    • tfrost

      Does it matter?

  • jen

    The smell of cigarette smoke mixed with bus exhaust and chilly morning (sea) air makes me think of Aberdeen. Surprisingly nostalgia-inducing.

  • Greg Harlan

    I miss the smell of peat smoke whenever I think of Scotland.

  • gnmaury

    A misty morning with the heavy aroma of burning coal.

  • Fiona Wilson

    I do not miss the pervasive smell of cigarettes as the airplane doors open.

  • David B

    Warm beer?!? I think I may vomit.

    • Npkeith

      Everybody gives Brits crap about this. It’s not warm, it’s cellar temperature. It’s just not refrigerated. People who drink beer with flavor (flavour if you’re British), as opposed to the fizzy yellow stuff most people call beer in the states, appreciate not having their taste buds numbed by a liquid just this side of freezing…

      Ok. Tongue removed from cheek. British beers tend to be ales and US beers tend to be lagers. Lagers are served colder, ales are served slightly below room temperature.

      • Paul Carney

        NPKeith, you are right – they HAVE to be served at cellar temperature to get the flavour of the hops, which is something that most non-Brit’s don’t understand.

      • Pr3ttyPwnies

        Npkeith – It also depends on where you are in the states. In Portland, Oregon, you’ve got it all. My fiance is a beer snob, and he loves drinking cellar – temp.

        And that yellow – fizzy stuff most Americans call beer isn’t beer – it’s piss water. :)

      • David B

        I am a beer aficionado. I love lagers, ales, stouts, porters, and I have drank beer from all around the world. So please don’t think I am your typical American Bud drinker. It must, Must, MUST be drunk ice cold. Always. Otherwise it tastes like crap to me. Cold doesn’t affect my palate

      • LMJ

        Fortunately, when I was still drinking beer, I had bars that knew what temperatures to serve a lager (ice cold if it’s a typical American lager), ale or stout. I stopped drinking Bud (sugar water) when I turned 21 and was able to buy my own beer.

    • gn

      Just think of it more like wine.

      • David B

        I also drink wine chilled. I like beverages to be either steaming hot or ice cold. Room temperature just doesn’t do it for me. Face it, drinks like wine and beer are served room temp because they were invented before refrigeration. This is the 21st century. We can have them cold and refreshing now.

        • gn

          I’d say you’re missing out, but it’s a free country :)

  • Michael Brain

    I have Ex Pat Brit ( naturalised Yanks) friends who yearn for MINT SAUCE, HP sauce, proper bacon ( not streaky), AND they used to cook fish & chips in Lard at the BLACK COUNTRY Museum!

    • SupeRed09

      There is NO excuse for ever being without HP sauce!!!

  • Npkeith

    The smell of the sprig of holly on top of the Christmas pudding catching fire because Dad forgot to pull it off before he poured the flaming brandy over it…

  • Nikki

    rain, tea rose, dreft

  • HeatherLeigh02

    Oh definitely come to Pittsburgh, PA. Petrol, cut grass, in the surrounding neighborhoods and countryside, lots of rain, Southside for your pub smell, and Strip District for all your food smells. We got this unique system of tight nit neighborhoods that all make up the city. Honestly when it rains in PA countryside it looks like England.

  • Patty

    Do not miss the smell of something being done to hops at a brewery. Like a concentrated version of overcooked cabbage. Remember it from my student days in Sheffield – one time it was so bad people were throwing up on the bus – which brought another set of awful smells. I do miss the smell of fresh crusty bakery bread though.

    • expatmum

      I lived within sniffing distance of the Scottish and Newcastle brewery and I agree 100%. It was a stomach-churning smell – bit like warm milk on weetabix.

  • niamh17

    I grew up by the Ford’s factory in Dagenham so I remember the smell of heavy industry, and rubber from the tyre plants in rainham. Not exactly green and pleasant but still home!

  • jen

    I’m in Canada not U.S. but when I go home to England I love the smell of the old country pubs. And the beer, well, there’s nothing to compare.

  • khrissie

    My British partner says yes yes yes to all the above.

  • Npkeith

    Ooh. The other one is that sulfur-y, gunpowdery smell that hangs around the dinner table after everyone has pulled their Christmas crackers…

  • bbdrvr

    Interesting. I’m a congenital anosmic (born with no sense of smell). I miss most of the things listed when I come home from visiting the UK, but for different reasons. The color of the grass, eating at chip shops, pubs, etc. Don’t miss the rain though – I live in Seattle. It rains more often here than it does there.

    • LMJ

      What Seattle has is a constant mist from the bay, and almost the entire year with at least 1/4 cloud cover – hence the coffee culture. There are at least 30 major cities with a higher actual rainfall total, including my own.

      A sunny day in Seattle is breathtaking, though.

      • bbdrvr

        Right, which is why I said “it rains more often here” and not “we get more rain”.

  • expatmum

    Dettol! Sorry – but I have to have friends bring it over for me. My gran used it on everything and nothing else convinces me that things are “clean” LOL. (One smart alec friend brought me scent-free Dettol one year.)

  • gn

    Don’t agree with much of this. Cut grass, petrol/gasoline, rain, and Indian restaurants smell pretty much the same to me.

    One thing I certainly don’t miss: the overwhelming stench of cigarette smoke in pubs. I see that’s now banned in England too. Thank God.

    • frozen01

      I’m not a smoker, but there’s just something about the hazy atmosphere that cigarette smoke creates. I actually miss it, especially at blues clubs. Haven’t been to blues club since the ban. Same with the little dive bar down the road from my old house. It’s just not the same.

  • Steve Thorpe

    The smell I miss most living in California: The smell of a butcher’s shop! Sure, you get meat counters at some supermarkets but the meat is prepared “in-back” and we are insulated from the meat on display by an impenetrable barrier of glass. Nowhere here can you walk into a small shop and be surrounded by the smell off raw meat and hot, freshly cooked pork pies.

    • Vyco

      I’ll agree that that’s true in supermarkets, but I can think of at least 3 local butcher shops that have the most delicious smells of both raw and cooked meats.

  • Sjalen

    Living in Sweden, I can assure you that the cut lawns smell the same there. However, you’ve completely forgotten one of the most English smells: coalfires in autumn and winter.

  • Dale

    It’s the corn ethanol. Our sugar is corn and our gasoline is also corn. We’ve a lot of corn over here. Literally and figuratively.

  • Smartiegirl

    I don’t know what it is – but whenever I received a package from Britain during my childhood — I’d smell it — and tell my family, “yep, it smells like England” — perhaps it’s a combination of all of the above — with a whiff of “smarties” on top. :)

    • frozen01

      This reminds me of when I was a child and my parents sent me from Alabama to live with my grandparents in Wisconsin (better schools). They would send me “care packages” after Mardi Gras containing all sorts of “throws” they’d caught… locally-made moon pies (so much better than that crap in the stores that tastes like they’ve been sitting on a shelf for years), cups, beads, coins, fake flowers, candy, etc. It was one of the best things in the world to me :)

    • SupeRed09

      What’s you favorite colour smartie?

  • Tuicall

    We missed the smell of cut grass when me moved TO the UK!

  • Loraine E.

    Where I grew up in Scotland there was a toffee factory. On a cold morning walking to school you could smell whatever flavor they were making that day. My favorite one was the treacle toffee. The factory is closed now.

  • Scott Helm

    This is the stupidest article i’ve ever read.

    • gn

      Your first time here?

  • Maggie A Jessop

    The old days of coming home from school in the fog with coal fires burning.

  • prstewart

    Definitely the rain. And the rain in Scotland even more so. No where else in the world does rain have that same earthy, other worldly scent.. I’ve been gone from Scotland for 30+ years and still remember it.

  • prstewart

    Lingering smell of burning peat in the highlands. You may not see a house for miles in any direction but the smell of a peat fire is a giveaway that someone lives there out of sight.

  • Tina

    I agree with the cut grass smell, it always reminded me of spring. And then a couple of months later, when you smell the first barbecues of the year. I live in Florida now, so we smell barbecues year round, which has destroyed that exciting summer feeling.

    I also agree with Dettol and will add Germolene to the list!

    And the kebab van that pulled up outside our S.U. college bar late on Friday and Saturday nights. LOL

  • Punkwhovian

    I’m sorry….I can’t be the only Mitchell & Webb fan who thought of linden trees instantly when I saw this topic? I’ve never actually smelled a linden tree myself, mind, but I’m guessing it’s not a popular scent?

  • Olde Squid

    I vote “amen” to this article! You picked every item on my personal list. Haven’t been in GB for over twenty-five years, and I still remember all of those smells and miss them. The first time I watched the episode of Doctor Who when Rose tells the Doctor she wants to go get some chips, I could remember that wonderful smell like it was yesterday. Always just wrote it off to my Irish and Scottish heritage, but you remind me that those things just smell GOOD! :)

  • Aurelas

    From my trip I would say that I miss the scent of a street full of gardens with all sorts of lovely flowers blooming, honeysuckle everywhere, fresh green hedges, all freshly rained on, and always underneath, the bracing salt air. I have come across nothing so wonderful anywhere else. I wish I could bottle it and wear it as a perfume!

  • http://www.suckonthis.com cpob1688

    I think the difference in both the cut grass and silage smell is due to precipitation. I’m sure the fescue in GB is a different variety that thrives better in the wet climate just as the American grasses do better with less rain, and the lusher, wetter grass has a different smell. The ample rain also affects the silage decomposition, resulting in silage that doesn’t dry out and fosters better conditions for continuous decomposition. Also, wetter conditions increase scent concentrations at the source and and keeps them closer to the ground and our noses.

  • Heather Qualy

    How is cut grass a British smell? Walk outside of the city occasionally, a huge chunk of this country actually has grass lawns, and guess what? We cut it regularly.

  • fed-up

    Petrol smells were the same back in the 50’s and 60’s. Then we started putting all types of additives in the mix, until now it is no longer unwise to inhale the fumes but is it actually down right dangerous to inhale the fumes.

  • Amy Adams

    Grass is not native to America, perhaps that is why it smells different here.

  • Kharon Anon

    I live in Oregon and work in a college bar so I’m quite familiar with the smell of rain (it’s Oregon, ’nuff said), cut grass (Oregon is the the grass seed capitol of the world) and pubs and stale ale (my bar’s been in buisiness since 1922. It’s hard to get much more stale than that, at least in the US).

  • londonjewels

    My Nana’s kitchen, windows open, the smell of slightly burned toast being scraped off into the sink……