The stench of ‘progress’

One of the best ways to enjoy Dorset is by mountain bike. You gather the sights, sounds and smells of your journey while burning off a bit of flab on longer trips of 10+ miles that would otherwise take you several hours on foot. Let’s focus on some smells of the county – not all pleasant…

I potter around on my electric Haibike FatSix that enables me to go farther and faster around the highways and byways of this jewel of a county than I used to be able to on my traditional mountain bike. I had a year off the saddle due to repeated chest infections given me by my daughter – and the fact I can’t stop smoking cigarettes. The idea is to get fit and have more core strength to fend off the bugs (and hopefully quit the toxic fumes while I’m at it). 

Smells of decay and warmth

Smell connects you to a continuum of life that I believe we sorely lack in this world. It used to tell you if your food was safe – my niece, a Bush Ranger in Namibia, uses smell to help hunt quarry such as elephants and rhinos in the wildlife reserve. Even with my tobacco-trashed nostrils I dash around the decades as I catch a whiff of this or that. For today we will just look at autumn – there are other smells that you may catch such as wild garlic in Spring that I won’t meditate on here. 

I’m entering my 45th year, and have powerful memories of the onset of autumn at my prep school. It had its own woodland high on a hill above Barnstaple, and after flying to school from my home in Virginia Beach, was overwhelmed with the musty scent of leaf litter decaying as the days shortened and the natural world buttoned down for the darker months. A sweet yet musty smell that when I get a whiff today sends me back 3.5 decades… 

Today was one such – I caught a whiff as I passed the woods of Hardy Monument on my little expedition. That smell tells us that the fruits of the land will soon be rotten if not picked while harvest time is going to be a riot of goodness… Or used to be. Lidl’s Own blackberries anyone?! Saves you getting off your arse and picking them. 

The world of the 80’s seems so far away as the world is almost unrecognisable from where we were then. My three year old has an iPad – we weren’t allowed TV at school except for the odd snippet when for example I watched the Challenger space shuttle blow up in a Geography class while waiting for the VCR to rewind…

Coal and wood warmed our homes. Outside Portesham in one of the hamlets I passed through heading for Upwey, so the waft of coal? (Or was it peat?) caught my nose as I pedalled past. Another smell that awakens you. I am not old enough that you needed a coal fire to warm the bath or even cook, but the scent, vaguely peaty sent me 9000 miles south to the Falklands in 1986 where people used it for all sorts of reasons – least of all to fertilise their veg patch. To someone who remembers the 50’s in London, coal may be an equally powerful but negative sensation as they choked and spluttered through pea soup smogs – more on that shortly. To me the peaty odour sent me to the freshest air I ever smelled, some 1500 miles from the nearest city of Montevideo. 

Progress doesn’t smell so sweetly

I make a living from a job that only partly existed when I did my A levels, but even the bits of journalism I do often involve a cheap phone call to eight time zones away that would have been prohibitively expensive in the 80’s. I probably would have been in theatre, counting jets landing on a carrier deck… The other bit – the largest part of my income – simply did not exist. “Promoting websites? What are websites?” the careers master may have asked in ridicule! I am no Luddite and hater of progress. I just wish to share some scents and ask whether some more progress is necessary to wean us off the cancerous and offensive smells of today?

The smell of cow manure told me I was getting away from the city and into Cornwall where I spent many a year of youth. It was sweet and enjoyable and came around Spring – at this time of year it would have been stubble burning as farmers extracted the nitrogen from the stubble to go back into the land. Margaret Thatcher put paid to that. 

On my ride today, nearing Upwey, I smelled the factory milk farm. A thick, lingering smell of almost chemical shit that the poor animals producing our £1 a litre supermarket milk must endure their short lives. They aren’t given names as our neighbour (who supplied us warm milk fresh from the tit by the jug) used to give their’s. They are given numbers. They don’t live 20 years as they might in Venterdon – more like 5, burdened by repeated pregnancies and their genetics that make their udders at least twice the size of our neighbour’s. The only thing that comforts me is that they know no better in their short lives. The cows in Venterdon still felt distressed when their calves were removed so we could steal their milk, but while the world of the factory farm is ‘humane’, so is prison for us – imagine being born, brought up and dying in one. 

I turned north at Upwey instead of heading to the straight and boring Relief Road. I avoid that cycle path like the Plague – even the risk of some idiot car driver knocking me off is preferable. Why? You smell the toxic fumes and micro-particles that are emitted from the cars that go by the thousand between Dorchester and Weymouth. Here’s where cycling and driving are different – later today I drove to Sainsbury’s in my hybrid electric Auris with my window open and smelled nothing. Cars emit vast amounts of toxins. Test driving my car I pointed out the sheer amount of pollutants in the atmosphere around western Southampton to the car dealer and told him one day this should be considered a serious health hazard. He could give no answer. 9000 unnecessary deaths a year occur in London due to the toxicity of the air. What about the poor sods around Melcombe Regis? I could see the haze from my canoe just offshore in summer. Our leaders find this acceptable ‘in the name of progress’. Yes, we die early so we can have some sort of freedom. 

Back home to Poundbury, my mind locked onto the scents of the ride. I remembered how for the first two years here I was puzzled by the stench in Charlie’s model village where I live.  Some of it is backed up sewers – human excrement – and a vaguely ‘rural’ smell that the Londoner second-homers may associate with rural life in the way I did manure. It isn’t – it’s slurry with few structural benefits to the soil being spread on in autumn. Spring manure adds structure to the soil and gives it life. Slurry? May add a few nutrients as we otherwise rape the very soil we use for our cheap food. 

Observations not solutions

I felt moved to write something today. It seethed and boiled within. My solutions? Ditch your fossil fuel car and at least buy a hybrid electric. Choose a small dairy like Craig’s of Osmington – pay extra for happ(ier) cows. Get outside and reconnect with the world away from the stench of progress – those olfactory memories may connect you to your past more strongly than many others! 

Richard Shrubb