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A Definitive Ranking of Soups I Have Eaten in Pubs Throughout the United Kingdom Over the Past Month

While hiking the Pennine Way and the Skye trail throughout August, I consumed several bowls of soup. These are those bowls.

  1. Curried Parsnip @ The Tan Hill Inn, August 8 – The Tan Hill Inn is the loneliest pub I’ve ever seen. It’s not in any town; it’s situated on the Long Causeway and the Pennine Way, with the nearest dwelling four miles away and the nearest village 11 miles. You don’t even see it until you crest the final hillock. Having climbed up to Great Shunner Fell and then down, and then up from Thwaite past a bunny-studded hill and around Swaledale, and then diving deep into Keld before climbing all the way back up, I didn’t know how far I still had to go, and exhaustion and midges and a pervasive sense of hopelessness had me thinking that if I could at least see the pub, even if it was way off in the distance, I’d be fine. And of course as soon as I saw it, it was closer than my hobbling ankles could have hoped. I set up camp in five minutes flat in a fury of midges, hood cinched tight around my eyes. My despair at the unending trail from 20 minutes previous morphed seamlessly into despair at having to sleep under a cloud of the wee bastards. Inside I got a beer and was joined by Mark, a high school IT consultant I had met briefly on the trail the previous day who had informed me that the Tan Hill Inn allowed camping out back – given its isolation, what my plan would have been otherwise I have no idea. Lie down in the road and hope for the best, I suppose. Mark had met a father and son (Nigel and Dan) on the trail, and they joined us. I ordered the soup. Huge chunks of parsnip and potato and carrot in a slightly grainy curry that was more sauce than soup. It was warm and tasty and almost meaty for something made entirely of vegetables. Three pints, two of Black Sheep and one of the Tan Hill’s own, bought in rounds by Mark and Nigel and Dan as we all got to know each other. By the time it was my turn to buy the next round, everyone was done drinking and the wind had picked up, dispersing the midges and my mood.
  2. Butternut Squash @ The Teesdale Hotel, Middleton-in-Teesdale, August 9 – I shouldn’t have complained about the previous day’s hike from Hawes to Tan Hill: I woke up and it was lashing rain and fog, and I got a late start trying to repack my bag – Mark had suggested my tent might fit in my bag’s tent compartment if I removed the poles, a suggestion that was both brilliant and the kind of oh, duh common sense that I felt should have occurred to me. I took the alternative route, following the main road for several miles before losing my way twice, diving down to the swollen river and moving into the bog of Bowes Moor. The burns were in spate and even though I assumed my hiking boots couldn’t get any wetter, I was wrong. I wasted precious time figuring out how to cross several streams. A week of walking meant I was so used to the weight of my backpack that I misjudged the leap and the pack tried to come sailing over my head from behind, knocking me flat on my front. I reached a river I thought was uncrossable and doubled back, but ran into Dan and Nigel, who found a neck to jump that I’d missed. I hobbled down the last slow descent to Middleton and limped into camp. A father with a whining daughter middletonacross the way offered Mark and I some tea, and I tried very hard not to cry with gratitude. We met Dan and Nigel in town and the kitchen was closed at our first preference and we felt too conspicuous for the white tablecloths of our second, but the Teesdale Hotel had a huge menu – huge enough that I was soundly ridiculed for ordering soup for the second night in a row. It was butternut squash, which I don’t like mashed or baked but which I love in a soup. It’s a rich and distinct flavour, a comforting one. I think there might have been red peppers in this one, and I ordered a side of thick chips as well. I was determined to buy a round this time but only managed to get a pint for Mark, while Nigel got one for me. The etiquette of the way people buy beer in pubs was at war with the etiquette of dads who see a girl order the cheapest menu item for two days running and reach their own conclusions. The dad at the campsite said he’d make tea for us again in the morning. And even though I know they were just his camping mugs, I felt gutted when I had to return my mug to him smeared with black newsprint I couldn’t get off – I hadn’t noticed the ink coating my fingers as I stuffed the toes of my wet boots with crumpled pages from the Teesdale Mercury.
  3. Cullen Skink @ The Isles Inn, Portree, August 13 – Two days after I left the Pennine Way I was hundreds of kilometers north on the Isle of Skye with my friend Erica. We took trains and coaches and rail replacement buses up from Glasgow, then a ferry, then a bus to Portree, and we were waiting for another bus to take us even further north. I had grown so used to nipping into the run-of-the-mill pub that Portree – heavily touristed this time of year – didn’t quite deliver. Table service! Having to wait for a table! Imagine! But soon we were settled, a pint in hand each, catching up on the few months we’d spent apart. It had been nice to have trail friends at the tail end of the Pennine Way – I could still hike alone, still spend all day just me and the moor and the chorus of whatever idiotic mid-2000s song was bouncing around my skull that day, could still test myself against the wide empty sky – and I could end the day commiserating with newfound friends. But it was undeniably nice to be with someone I’d known for years, someone for whom the conversation didn’t have to begin with the rote recitation of where I was from and what I was doing. My sister, who had once met up with me after a long time travelling alone herself, had told me about the relief and comfort I would feel. (Well, what she’d said specifically was that it was “nice to be with someone and not have to hold back my farts”, but I got what she was really saying.) Erica and I caught up on her move, my summer, and our plans for Skye. She wanted to try something traditional and ordered a pie, so I countered by ordering the cullen skink. It’s a Scottish soup made of smoked haddock, potato and onions – kind of like a very specific chowder. I had a middling one in Edinburgh last year but this one was much better – big flakes of fish, and I thought I could taste some fennel as well. It was creamy and tasty, and undeniably enhanced by the company.
  4. Butternut Squash @ The Top Brink Inn, Mankinholes, August 1 – I took a rest day in Mankinholes, my fourth day on the Pennine Way. I had spent the first in a mixture of thrilled elation, anxiety and full-body shock, and the second in a near-constant state of more or less complete emotional and physical meltdown. I was sunburnt, dehydrated, exhausted, in pain, frustrated, and alone. This is, according to most guidebooks and accounts of the Pennine Way, exceedingly normal and the stage where most people tend to quit. Knowing this did not help. I wanted to quit very badly myself. I wish I could say it was tenacity or a sense of stubbornness in the face of adversity, that kept me from doing so, but to be honest it was more the thought of what a public fuss I’d made of starting, and how embarrassing it would be for me, a self-proclaimed Competent Northern Outdoorswomen, to immediately give up. mankinholesTaking a rest day, I rationed, would let my blisters heal and my sleeping bag dry, and would give me the emotional time and space to interrogate my desire to quit. The hostel guy gave me teabags and bandaids and I fantasized about what it would be like not just to stop walking, but to stop in Mankinholes specifically. To live there: to work at the pub, to pick up odd jobs, to live at the hostel, to help with the lambing, to see the big green hills on all sides. To know no one. I was spending so much on the hostel I thought I should be virtuous and stick with cheese & crackers for dinner but then I rationalized that a rest day should probably encompass all aspects of rest, so I walked to the pub and ate outside. The soup was good – piping hot, so I couldn’t eat it for the first ten minutes it sat in front of me. It had lentils in it and wasn’t blended all the way – more of a chewing experience than a sipping one. It reminded me of a soup I’d had in Toronto that had apricots in it. It came with a bog standard dinner roll instead of good bread, but it still tasted good slathered in butter and daydreams of a life in Mankinholes. My boots were dry in the morning, so I put them on and kept walking.
  5. Ham, Lentil, & Vegetable @ Tea Garden Cafe, Mallaig, August 21 – Erica and I had finished up on Skye and spent a last night camping in a gorgeous forested cove. Our ferry crossing had been delayed by high winds and then a white-knuckle pitching journey across the waves to the mainland, where we were killing time before our train to Fort William. This time she ordered the cullen skink; I ordered the other soup largely for symmetrical reasons. Later that night she would catch a fever, losing her appetite, and I would try three different places before finding a place that sold chicken noodle soup. The soup at the Tea Garden Cafe contained ham in name only – I had been expecting large cubes, but could find only small shreds in the salty morass. But it had vegetables, which was more than could be said for anything else I’d eaten in the past week. I remember thinking that I was glad to be going home. My new definition of “home,” of course, being wherever your socks stay dry.
  6. Potato & Celery @ The Golden Lion, Horton-in-Ribblesdale, August 6 – Another rest day, after a day with three big climbs, including the first real mountain on the Pennine Way, Pen-y-ghent. I wasn’t sure I should take one, since the forecast was for rain and there’s a limit on how long I can spend in a tent I can’t even sit up in. England has a robust all-day pub culture so I holed up there all day, carefully considering how often to order something to justify my presence. There was an off-duty bartender who made idle conversation and bought me a pint. “I’m not trying to be – don’t worry,” he said. “I’m just being friendly, that’s all it means.” I appreciated the reassurance and so let my guard down and kept talking to him off and on throughout the afternoon until it became clear that he’d changed his mind and was hitting on me after all, despite the leave-me-alone broadcasting I tried to put my back into once I noticed that this change of heart came after I’d already told him where I was camping and that I was hiking alone. It was fine – I’m a grown woman and I wasn’t in any danger. But I was annoyed, and more than a little bit frustrated – at him, at myself, at all men everywhere, at my blisters, at the sheep outside my campsite who wouldn’t shut up. I’m sure it was okay, since the menu said it was made fresh from scratch every day, but I don’t remember what the soup tasted like.
  7. Tomato @ Bojangles Cafe, Appleby, August 10 – I set out from Middleton (Butternut Squash, #2) in the rain for the third day in a row, although my spirits refused to be dampened. The meadows were soaked and at one point the stream took over the path entirely, which wound beside the River Tees. I climbed a stile and saw Nigel and Dan standing in front of a river that crossed the Way to join the Tees, which had broken its banks and wiped out the path. We could see where we were supposed to cross the river, but not where the stepping stones were. It was too wide to jump from top to bottom. We discussed giving in to the dampness and wading across, but when we used a hiking pole to test the depths of the cold rushing water we couldn’t reach the bottom. We kept looking at each other, expecting one of us to suddenly have a bright idea, and did the same to Mark when he arrived. Nigel even tried to induce a few sheep to cross upstream to see how deep it was. Mark thought we could backtrack and walk up through a farmer’s field and take a road applebyfurther upstream, where we could hopefully rejoin with the official Pennine Way once it had crossed back over the river. We helped each other through the barbed wire fence and up to the road but finally determined we had lost too much time on what was supposed to be a 35km day even in good weather. We walked back to Middleton and shared a cab to Appleby. We were all a bit deflated when we stripped off our waterproofs and crammed into the cab – it was my last day on the Pennine Way, and I had been looking forward to a triumphant finish before I went north to meet Erica on Skye. Since it was early in the day, Nigel and Dan decided to head home early, and, in a stunning act of generosity, offered me their B&B booking for the night. We got lunch before their train home and I ordered the tomato soup, and once again received a gentle ribbing for having only ever ordered soup in their presence. I get the bemusement, especially given the appetite you’re meant to work up climbing hills all day, but soup is warm, comes with bread, contains vegetables, and is never more than £4.50. Obviously I’m ordering the soup, guys. Every time. Like most tomato soups it was far too sweet, and not quite hot enough to distance itself fully from a caesar; a realization that, once made, meant I had to hold back a wince at every spoonful. I was extremely grateful for their generosity – a B&B is not an insignificant amount of money – and felt oddly vulnerable in the face of it, as though I’d somehow betrayed too much of how I was feeling or what it would mean to these kind strangers who I still barely knew. When we finished lunch I saw them to their train (Mark cheerfully declared himself “Billy No-Mates again” before striking off for Dufton) and soon I was warm, and dry, and inside, wrapped not just in tea and a duvet but in the kindness people offer to others walking the same trail they are, even if just for a day.
  8. Cully & Scully Haddock Chowder @ Tesco Metro, Birmingham, July 28 – I was just about to leave for the Pennine Way and didn’t want to buy too many groceries, so I bought this carton of soup and heated it up on the stove at my sister’s apartment. The soup was nothing special but was elevated by some elite crushed-up rosemary crackers I found. Sometimes things are only as good as you make them.
  9. Maggi Instant Noodles, Curry Flavour @ Dun Flodigarry Hostel, Skye, August 14 – Erica and I had camped on the most northerly tip of Skye, the headlands of Rubha Hunish. A pre-sunset rainbow splashed against the cliff face, the blue mountains of the Hebrides on the horizon, and we learned in the morning there had been seals bobbing around us in the sea. We clambered back up the basalt cliff to the bothy and then followed the Skye Trail down the northeastern coast alongside sheer cliffs and over wet burns and around jumbled church ruins and through a field that advertised a bull but thankfully did not contain one. A many-hours-long excursion to a grocery store did not yield groceries, but thankfully the hostel sold instant noodles for us to slurp back while we planned the next day’s walk up past glittering glacial tarns and towering rock formations. Instant noodles are not good, but you don’t always need something good. Sometimes you just need something that will do the trick. There is enough deliciousness to be found in everything else. rubha

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