Visiting the Thyme Estate in Southrop:
Guest post by Susan Grossman
The little Bichon puppy, the newest addition to the Hibbert family, tore across the water meadow, scattering Welsh Black Mountain sheep and French ducks in its path. The 150-acre Thyme estate in Southrop, on the border of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire, described by the owner Caryn Hibbert as an ‘English country destination’ is just that, a village of renovated 17th century farm buildings including 31 bedrooms, a spa, outdoor mineral pool, the local pub, a cookery school and a new restaurant in a former ox barn.
The family brought the Manor in 2001. In 2005 they acquired the Swan Inn and began to renovate the farmyard, starting with the listed Tithe Barn. The highly acclaimed cookery school followed. Renovations continue with additional spa facilities including a hot tub to open next year. It’s very much a family affair, with son Charlie Hibbert, who honed his passion for ‘slow food’ via Ballymaloe in Ireland and Quo Vadis in Soho, at the helm at the Ox Barn.
The kitchen garden and orchards were, even on this chilly December day, yielding fresh ingredients, from robust leaves and pickled vegetables for salads to crab apples, medlar and edible flowers appearing in cocktails and puddings. They make their own kefir (fermented milk) and yoghurt, jams, breads, well everything. When I ask Charlie Hibbert if he owns a freezer, he looks shocked.
Passionate is too weak a word for the dedicated team at Thyme. From the masseurs in the Meadow Spa and their mindful herbal probiotic treatments to the dedicated front of house team handing out wellies, maps and lanterns to ensure no-one gets lost on the estate.
Sturdy sheep seats, sculptures and other artworks are inspired by the natural world with individual pieces of furniture carefully sourced and restored. What is impressive is the size of the rooms and barns. Yet everywhere in Thyme feels intimate, possibly down to there being so many nooks and crannies, one of which I discovered, housed a collection of Rockfish and Hunter wellingtons which are definitely needed if you intend to walk around the estate.
The water meadows and river banks are carefully managed as wild spaces to encourage native flora and fauna to flourish and thrive. Together they support a diverse ecosystem of wildflowers, otters, kingfishers, egrets and water voles.
In the Baa bar (converted from the old lambing sheds) there is a Damson Fleece (port, scotch, lemon and crab apple cider vinegar) and sloe gin on the drinks list, and various infusions made from shrubs. There are games for rainy days and expensive magazines. Leafing through a copy of Kinfolk there is an article on ‘acquired taste’. Taste is defined as ‘the things you like, influenced by the community around you, the people you admire from afar and the media you consume’. Thyme at Southrop seems to have cracked it.
Bedrooms are in the Georgian rectory, the Lodge, and in cottages around the courtyard. Ours is in the Farmhouse. It has a dining room and glass chandeliers. There are exposed beams and walls are lopsided. A window seat overlooks the gardens. A large distressed armoire with bulging drawers is slightly too big for the room but is nevertheless quite a find. The décor is muted, fabrics elegant and sheets silky smooth. And look, a hot water bottle in a white linen cover! And a glitzy bathroom with bergamot shampoos in BIG bottles.
The outdoor slate lined mineral water pool by the Spa is heated to 30 degrees. Tempting even in December, but instead I have a ‘mindful’ massage that uses Aurelia probiotic BioOrganic ingredients ‘intelligent skincare with integrity’, that supposedly has anti-inflammatory properties. I opt for ‘Wakefulness’. My treatment oils include grapefruit, fennel, juniper, and of course, thyme. Jolly soothing, but for some reason, I fall asleep for an hour afterwards.
The 19th century Ox Barn, which originally housed oxon, is a surprisingly intimate contemporary space, despite its huge roof made from a single 65ft span of Canadian Douglas fir, warm and inviting with twinkly lights, mirrors and marble café style tables. My crab salad arrives entwined in puntarella and escarole leaves, on a slaw of fennel and celery leaf. Divinely refreshing. I was dithering between that and the partridge salad with picked damsons, grilled bitter leaves and parsley. Maybe next time.
A plate of brill, shimmering in a pale oyster and salsify sauce, was creamy and succulent, accompanied by Jerusalem artichoke hearts braised with rosemary; wrinkled like raisins. The sauce kept slipping through my fork and I had to be restrained from licking my plate.
Desert of crab apple and almond tart topped with cream and crab apple ice cream was almost nougat like in consistency, a thin layer of apple jelly spread on the pastry base to hold the frangipane. Not a shy desert.
The chef’s breakfast table offers home-made Kafir, a superb marmalade, granola and poached fruits. On the menu, buckwheat pancakes with yoghurt and poached figs, and all sorts of goodies from the farm.
Cotswold people and London people go to Thyme at Southrop. Don’t expect pretension of any sort. Do expect friendliness and attention to detail. Unlike many weekend-away hotels, they don’t run out of Sunday papers or flinch if you have dietary preferences. Staff are never intrusive, but they spot what needs attending to before you do, tidying up, plumping up cushions, handing out walking maps and tilly lamps to get to the farmhouse cottages after dark.
Which is all a bit strange considering the Hibbert family are not hotel people. The conversions and restoration were overseen by Caryn’s physicist inventor father, Michael Bertioli. Caryn Hibbert herself was an obstetrician in a London hospital before she opened the Cookery School and started acquiring the buildings that make up her ‘village’.
She insists it is not a hotel. And it sort of isn’t. Though it is definitely her baby. You are sharing the family’s passion for heritage and the land because they believe in it.
As for Charlie Hibbert and his first restaurant. Watch this space.
Susan Grossman is a travel writer, university lecturer and media coach.
Details: Thyme, Southrop, Gloucestershire GL7 3NX
www.thyme.co.uk +44(0)1367 850174 Bedrooms are from £285 a night.
Location images courtesy of Thyme, all other images copyright Susan Grossman
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