Making scent of it all…

OK, I admit it, I am old enough (just!) to remember steam trains. I am also now of an age to get nostalgic about pretty much anything from my childhood.

We are lucky to have a couple of steam railways near us down here in Devon. One skirts the coast and goes from Paignton to Kingswear – just across the water from the lovely harbour town of Dartmouth. The other, the South Devon Railway, runs beside the river Dart between Ashburton and the town of Totnes. When the river is high, roaring over rocks and surging under bridges it is quite an exciting ride!

When I went on it recently, the smell of the steam engine and the leather of the upholstery transported me instantly back to my childhood in Buckinghamshire and the steam trains that puffed back and forth along the Thames Valley. Steam trains also make those wonderful rhythmical sounds, clanks and bangs and little snorts that all add up to make them seem friendly, almost human, with characters of their own, something the poor old diesel trains never had a hope of achieving.

But thinking about the lovely smell of the steam (I suppose it’s the soot really!), it set me thinking about how evocative smells can be. A particular scent can instantly recall long-forgotten memories as if it were only yesterday. Mostly, the memories are happy but some, often floral, remind me of someone I’ve lost and while it is sad, it’s also good to pause every now and then in our hectic lives, and remember them, and smile.

And so, here are some of the other smells that ‘set me off’:

  • Freshly mown grass – school sports days, ugh!
  • Two-stroke petrol engines – an early boyfriend!
  • Geranium leaves – fresh, earthiness in a damp garden.
  • Gunpowder – Guy Fawkes night and the joy of childhood…

What about you? What smells bring memories surging back? Let’s hear your thoughts.

Meanwhile… happy Easter and don’t eat too many eggs!

13 replies
  1. GWEN says:

    mmm fresh grass for me Joanna transports me back to my Grandma's house who lived in the country where combine harvesters went past the bottom of the garden on a sunny afternoon & the smell of the garden after a summer storm.Is'nt the human mind a wonderful thing when just a smell can transport you back in time.

  2. Margaret says:

    For me its licourice ( not good at spelling ) 🙁 It reminds me of the sweetshop mum took me to when I was about 5yrs old.

  3. Linda McCormick says:

    Yes the smell of the steam is very evocative. I too grew up in Buckinghamshire (the bit that eventually became Berkshire!!) and my grandfather was a guard on GWR!! Great memories!!

  4. Carolyn Hughes says:

    Oh yes, Steam engines and the smell transports me back to early school days, The railway line ran past our school, if we were out in the playground, we would all row up and wave to the engine drivers – those were the days.
    The perfume of Honeysuckle in the hedgerow as I walk the dogs down our lane on a summers evening.
    Laveder and Rosemary are wonderful smells that remind me of my lovely Grandmother.
    Tomatoes in a warm Greenhouse freshly sprayed with water, dear memories of Grandad. Thats it Joanna, I'll have to stop there because the list goes on and on! Happy Easter to you and your family. Carolyn x

  5. janet says:

    Wild freesias grew in our garden in Australia and the scent of freesia always brings back those carefree childhood days, along with the scent of sweet gum blossom, wattle and eucalyptus trees.
    Old Spice aftershave has bitter-sweet memories too!!

  6. Jayne Hall says:

    I love the smell of steam trains as well, some years ago I used to have holidays in the seven valley shropshire area . Also when I used to go to speedway the smell then, I love it!!. Fresh grass, and real home fires I like to walk and take the smells in.
    The smell of homemade fresh bread being baked. mmmm It's making me hungry.
    Have a great Easter. Love Jayne x

  7. Joanna Sheen says:

    Lovely to hear your memories – interesting that the same smells work as triggers for so many of us! Happy Easter, smiles Joanna

  8. Dianne G says:

    I to have fond memories of steam trains as having lived in Wimborne, Dorset until I married, my childhood holidays was spent travelling to destinations like Bournemouth and Swanage by steam train…..I now live close to the New Forest and like you Joanna gives me a lot of inspiration for my crafting…….but the thing that brings back a strong childhood memory is the smell off rain on tarmac….this always takes me back in time to the happy memories spent with childhood friends in the school playground. Oh dear feeling quite nostalgic now!!

  9. Jackie Ford says:

    Parma violets, wallflowers, pansies and Californian Poppy perfume. Does anyone know where I can buy that?
    Happy Easter to you, Joanna, and all your blog followers!

  10. freda says:

    Hi Joanna, I too remember steam trains, being locked in the toilet by myself aged about four, and mum not being able to hear my screams above the noise of the engine, and yes the smuts on your face if you looked out of the window. Other smells include the coal fiire which mum and dad had roaring up the chimney. The smell of the bikes at Exeter speedway.Now it's the smell of the sea which means home to me, having lived in Torquay until I married 50 years ago this Saturday, March 30th 1963, We have had a lovely week-end with a family meal on Saturday and party for friends last night. We are going to have another party next Saturday with my family and friends in Torquay. I love reading your Country Days and changing pictures at the top where it says Torquay 3 miles (I wish) on the sign post. Luckily we have a caravan onsite by the ring road where we spend a lot of the Summer. Bye for now Joanna.

  11. Grace says:

    My memory of a steam train was when we were on holiday in Austria and my husband spent nearly all day on our wedding anniversary taking pictures of a steam train in St Johann!

  12. Grace says:

    My memory of a steam train was when we were on holiday in Austria and my husband spent nearly all day on our wedding anniversary taking pictures of a steam train in St Johann!


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