The mystery stench plaguing a small seaside town

Brightlingsea beach huts
Local residents have complained of headaches and sore throats when a mystery smell descends on Brightlingsea - Alamy

Bad smells are one thing. Muck-spreading and animal waste are part and parcel of countryside living. But the problem afflicting the small town of Brightlingsea on the coast of Essex is no mere smell. The only term residents use to describe it is “stench”.

The stench of Brightlingsea has blighted the town for years now. And, like a modern-day Erin Brockovich, Jane Paul is a local campaigner working tirelessly to protect the picturesque coastal town’s interests and take the perpetrators to task. She has found complaints from residents to the Environment Agency and in residents’ groups on social media dating back to 2018.

“But the problem really started last year when we had those hot spells,” she says. “It was terrible. I couldn’t use my garden, I couldn’t put my washing out on the line, I couldn’t open my windows. The stench was unbearable.”

With a population of under 9,000, a number of charming beaches on the Colne Estuary, and a few decent spots to get a fish supper, Brightlingsea is the sort of quintessentially English seaside town many dream of retiring to. Some are fiercely protective of that reputation. Others are less bothered.

“A few smells, that’s part of living in the countryside, I don’t know why you people come down from London and stir up trouble,” one acerbic resident, ice cream in hand, replied when asked about the stench.

Brightlingsea stench campaigner Jane Paul
Local campaigner Jane Paul: ‘I couldn’t open my windows. The stench was unbearable’ - Julian Simmonds

But the thing is, it’s not just a countryside smell that many locals are bothered about. At least, not always. “One of the smells, usually in the daytime, is putrid waste, something like rotting rubbish, but with a chemical tinge to it,” says resident Caron Gould, an active member of BRAG – the Brightlingsea Residents Action Group – which has been investigating and urging authorities to take action.

“The second smell, which mainly comes at night, is like sulphur or oil – like the old oil pits you used to get at garages. I’m a heavy sleeper, but that smell wakes me up at night. That worries me, it’s obviously telling my brain that something isn’t right.”

There is genuine fear in Gould’s voice when she describes the smell permeating her home. “We don’t know what we’re breathing in, we don’t know what it’s doing to us. I go to bed praying for wind because that’ll blow it away. On calm nights it hangs around and infiltrates our homes.”

The majority of those affected by the mystery stench are in the northern part of the town, away from the bobbing boats and colourful beach huts that populate the postcard pictures of the resort.

This part of town backs on to farmland. An industrial waste treatment facility is located in a field next to the miniature business park. Across the road is Brightlingsea’s only supermarket, an East Of England Co-Op that is already losing customers due to the foul odour.

Philomena*, an employee who has been at the shop for decades, notes that the smell has become insufferable. “The whole shop stinks,” she says. “It’s quiet over the summer months because people don’t come in here during the worst of it [the smell]. We had people off with illness, everyone was getting headaches,” she adds. “You’d come in and within an hour you’d get this headache for your whole shift. Managers have told us not to talk about it.”

Co-op supermarket in Brightlingsea
Employees of Brightlingsea's only supermarket, near the Dunmow Waste Transfer & Recycling Centre, fear they are losing customers due to the stench - Julian Simmonds

While residents have their suspicions, no one can say where the stench is emanating from. “We can’t be sure,” says Gould. “There are various possibilities: the farm, the industrial units and the waste treatment facility.”

Over the summer, the local district council, Tendring, announced it would be closing its investigation into the source of the stench after visiting Brightlingsea 27 times.

“Officers from within our Environmental Protection team have undertaken extensive proactive odour monitoring in Brightlingsea since the beginning of June 2023, that included 27 proactive visits and two reactive visits by Officers from the EP Team, during and out of office hours,” a Tendring District Council spokesperson told The Telegraph.

“Our partners in the Environment Agency, who also have statutory responsibility for such investigations, have undertaken their own investigations and found no evidence with which to act upon.”

Local campaigner Paul lives in a semi-detached home right in the centre of the area the stench seems to affect the worst. A Ghostbusters-style poster emblazoned with the words “Who you gonna call? Stenchbusters!” hangs on the front door.

Residents of Brightlingsea are concerned about the effects of the mystery smell on lung health - Julian Simmonds

In her front room, surrounded by piles of paper – freedom of information request reports from the Environment Agency – Paul describes the body as her “bête noire” in her battle against the stench. “I don’t think it has been enforcing properly based on clear evidence,” she grumbles.

“My freedom of information enquiry has shown that their inspectors have found breaches and problems during visits to the waste management facility. They have linked those problems with smells in the past, so it isn’t true to say they haven’t found evidence.”

Eastern Waste Disposal, alluded to by Paul, has denied a problem. In August 2022, its chief technical officer, Edward Barnes, admitted to local press that a smell had been detected but added: “The business followed its procedures and has resolved the odour with consultation from the Environment Agency. Reports of chemicals and other substances coming from the site are unfounded.”

At the time, Tendring District Council released a statement making clear its satisfaction that “the site is taking appropriate measures to control the odour –  however some odour from the site must be expected at times.”

A town council map of Brightlingsea
According to the Environmental Protection Act 1990, councils and the Environment Agency must prevent smells from industrial and business premises which constitute a ‘statutory nuisance’ - Julian Simmonds

Bosses at the Dunmow Group, which controls Eastern Waste Disposal, failed to respond when approached for comment by the Telegraph. The Environment Agency says: “We have visited the site on several occasions since the initial reports and found no evidence of odour on site. We take all such reports seriously and act accordingly.”

Frustration is boiling over for residents. There are dark mutterings of a cover-up in some quarters involving illegal movement of dangerous materials, and a council paid off to hush it up, or too cowed by the threat of litigation to expose the story.

“I don’t think there is any conspiracy here personally, I think it’s sheer incompetence and buck passing,” argues Matt Court, a Brightlingsea town councillor who has been drawn into the investigation. “People have got more angry over the past few months. Last year people were happy for the authorities to sort it.

“There was talk of drains being a problem, a gas leak, some kind of chemical spill. Once those things got sorted, people hoped it would go away. When the stench returned people got frustrated. That’s where we are now.”

According to the Environmental Protection Act 1990, councils and the Environment Agency must prevent smells from industrial and business premises which constitute a ‘statutory nuisance’. This is defined as smells which “unreasonably and substantially interfere with the use or enjoyment of a home or other premises” or could “injure health or be likely to injure health”.

Brightlingsea town councillor Matt Court
Brightlingsea town councillor Matt Court: ‘I don’t think there is any conspiracy here personally, I think it’s sheer incompetence and buck-passing’ - Julian Simmonds

Paul and Gould say that the stench blighting Brightlingsea does both. “The common symptom I hear about from neighbours and people in the area all the time is headaches and sore throats when the smell occurs,” says Paul.

“There are elderly people who have health conditions like asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) who have had to use nebulisers and have breathing problems. I have known of people in tears during the summer because the stench keeps them awake.” The local doctor’s office in Brightlingsea refused to comment on the matter.

One of the difficulties in assessing nuisance smells is how subjective the issue can be. The wind can blow the stench away before inspectors arrive, and there’s no practically useful technology. Councils are encouraged to use human ‘sniffers’ to assess issues like the one affecting Brightlingsea. The method is far from infallible.

“I got a councillor out at 10 o’clock one evening last year because there was a stench outside,” explains Paul. “He came straight out to smell it and as soon as he opened his car door he said “hydrogen sulphide”. The thing about hydrogen sulphide is that it knocks out your sense of smell  – either acutely or over long periods.”

The idea that this issue could resolve itself by removing residents’ olfactory faculties entirely is rather cold comfort to people in Brightlingsea.

“I am worried for my daughter who has started school in the affected area this September,” says Court. “I don’t have any expertise on this but I think if you can smell it you’re in the firing line, so I’ve warned my daughter that if she smells it in the playground she needs to go back into the school buildings. It’s a potential recipe for disaster. We don’t want some unknown chemicals in our children’s lungs as they’re playing.”

The Dunmow Waste Transfer & Recycling Centre in Brightlingsea
Some residents believe the smell emanates from The Dunmow Waste Transfer & Recycling Centre, but the council are undecided. - Julian Simmonds

Despite the efforts of Paul, Gould, Court, and the residents’ action group, the feeling in Brightlingsea is one of resignation.

Without any idea about the cause of the smell, and no movement from the authorities, few have any faith the issue will be resolved. Brightlingsea considers itself a town left behind, let down by incompetent local government and shunned by those with the power to make a difference.

Even local MP Bernard Jenkin despairs of the situation. “I have been following these issues for many months, and in frequent contact with Anglian Water and the Environment Agency,” he says

“I have the greatest sympathy for those affected and I keep in touch with local councillors to provide whatever support I can. Every time there is a complaint, the Environment Agency investigates it, but has been unable to identify the source of the smell.

“Many people have theories but there is no proven explanation. It is incredibly frustrating.”

“I think the council and the EA will keep passing the buck between them for years,” sighs Court. “Isn’t this what we pay our council taxes for? I expect the council to deal with these issues.”

Still, there’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon: a similar case in Southend-on-Sea has yielded results. Following a three-year investigation, Southend Council recently issued an ‘abatement notice’ to Anglian Water - the source of its own stench - to reduce it by October 2024.

“I guess we’re only two years down the line with our stench,” Court wrote in an email to the Telegraph, “just a few years for us to go”.

*Not her real name