I read that Rebecca Goswell is a lifelong fan of London, and decided to enlist her friend, the perfumer Francois Robert, 'to capture the very essence of its most characterful and inspiring places'. Together they set out to create a series of perfumes each named after a specific postcode, an approach to fragrance creation that brings to mind Jan Uprichard and Geza Schoen's Odourific Odyssey project in Belfast.
I spent five summers working in London as a student, and am familiar with a number of different districts in the city. So I was eager to try these scented postcodes and see if they chimed with my own impressions of that particular area. One scent particularly caught my imagination, namely SEI, which appealed to me on a number of levels. The blurb on the BEX London site - note that the brand and collection itself seem to be called 'BEX Londoner', while the company is 'BEX London' - explains the background to SE1:
'Evoking the atmosphere and aroma of the old Thameside spice wharfs, Londoner SE1 is alive with bergamot, citrus, cardamom and pimento balanced with a deep woody base of amber, sea moss, driftwood and finest natural vetiver.'
Now that is a very enticing description, and of interest also for confirming the plural of 'wharf'. Hold on, a cursory google suggests both 'wharfs' and 'wharves' are acceptable.
So how does it smell?
Well, all the BEX Londoner fragrances are positioned as 'androgynous', but this one leans to the masculine in my view, though I am drawn to it myself. It opens with citrus, a wallop of mixed spice and a strong planky undertow, supported by the earthy facet of the vetiver. The scent manages to be both airy yet full-on. It completely evokes for me images of Long John Silver in Treasure Island, the sounds of creaking timbers and rocking bunks in Spanish galleons - and most crucially and nostalgically, the smell and feel of those dear little toy kegs of rum in the board game Buccaneer...
SE1 doesn't really change and remains simultaneously bright, spicy, airy, woody and earthy(!) throughout. It just gets softer and more blurry as it wears on. I don't particularly detect amber, never mind the sea moss, though there is a background warmth to the scent that might well be the former. For a more nuanced description, I recommend Freddie of Smellythoughts' take on Londoner SE1 here. What his nose reads as a 'marine accord' is possibly what I am struggling to connote with 'airy'. I am pleased to note that SE1 was also his favourite of the bunch!
As it happens, I have a sneaking affection for wharves, and have visited a goodly number in places like Hamburg (which boasts the third biggest banana dock in the world, don't you know!) and New Bedford, MA (where I additionally took a tour of a plant that makes crushed ice for trawlers). My interest was initially piqued by seafaring ancestors on my mother's side, including a distant great-great-something grandfather who was the captain of a clipper ship that regularly plied the waves between Australia and England. In his spare time he kept detailed log books of his eventful voyages** and wrote and illustrated a comic strip magazine to entertain his crew during their long weeks at sea. All of which my mum donated to the Greenwich Maritime Museum, where they may or may not still be on display today.
And thus it was that on a recent trip to London, I legged it down to the Shad Thames area by Tower Bridge to soak up the atmosphere of the SE1 postcode and generally get into the zone of the perfume it inspired. It was a blisteringly hot day and I had my luggage in tow, yet I managed to spend a happy couple of hours ambling through the rabbit warren of streets just behind the riverfront, clocking any vestigial bits of wharf I could discern, as well as the many buildings that have been named after spices and other traded commodities such as tea and wheat.
Yup, forget whales - wharf-watching is where it's at, preferably wearing SE1 for added verisimilitude, which I wasn't at the time. ;-)
And in a satisfying twist to this story, I recently did a perfume consultation for a friend who has never really worn men's aftershave of any kind. I gave him half a dozen niche samples to try and SE1 came out as the clear winner. The only perfume of the bunch with which he felt a 'visceral connection' (his words). And guess what...? He happens to live on a boat himself - albeit not one suited to plying the spice trade routes, but still.
**According to family lore, on one trip from Australia my ancestor spied a young boy who had got into difficulties swimming off the coast of Ceylon. He leapt into the sea and saved the child from drowning. Said child turned out to be an Indian prince(!), and my great-great etc was given a ruby ring by his father as a thank you for his prompt action. I have seen the ring, but cannot confirm the rest of the story...
Disclosure: I was sent samples of all four BEX Londoner perfumes by BEX London's PR company, who also offered to send me a bottle of whichever scent proved to be my favourite (I obviously picked SE1). This offer was not contingent on my writing a review, but I wanted to do so anyway.