by Fiona Duncan, The Telegraph, December 5, 2018
I began my journey through Thyme (warning: more puns to come) with an excellent lunch in the pub. Among the water meadows and farmland of south Gloucestershire, the Swan at Southrop forms just one element of the beguiling hospitality enterprise that is Thyme.
The Swan has all the attributes of a successful Cotswold pub: beams, inglenooks, flagstone floors, of course, but also Farrow & Ball paintwork, moody lighting, expensive dining chairs upholstered in tweed and cool customers who look like escapees from Soho Farmhouse.
Hitherto, I’ve been aware of Thyme as a cookery school with accommodation, and knew that the Swan was under the same ownership. Now I was bidden to witness the transformation of Thyme into a fully-fledged, 31-bedroom, no-children-under-12, luxury country-house hotel. Or “English country destination”, as the owners describe it. Or indeed “village within a village”. Whatever you call it, the story of Thyme is exceptional, and it proves to me yet again that it’s not training that makes good hoteliers but instinct, vision, attention to detail, passion, creativity and the ability to work around the clock. Caryn Hibbert, the force behind Thyme, now set to rival the top weekend-away hotels in the country, had no previous experience; indeed, she trained as a doctor.
In 2002, Caryn and her husband Jerry, a retired commercials director, bought Southrop Manor and its 100-acre farm as their family home. Soon after, with the help of her father, a scientist and inventor, they quickly acquired a group of adjacent barns, including the magnificent Tithe Barn and Ox Barn, which were under threat of redevelopment into housing, restoring them over several years and crucially keeping their cathedral-like internal proportions intact.
But Caryn didn’t stop with the barns. After establishing the Cookery School in one of the outbuildings, she went on to buy, over the years, several attractive village houses and cottages for guest accommodation (now amounting to 31 bedrooms) and asked Bunny Guinness to design gardens to unite them. A long private drive now leads around the back of Southrop into this oasis of Cotswold charm and sophistication, which Caryn has every right to call a destination and a village within a village.
You need Jerry’s cleverly drawn map to make sense of the many different elements that have sprung up in the Thyme capsule but they soon become coherent. They include the hi-tech Cookery School; Baa, the glamorous bar; the farm, dotted with black Welsh mountain sheep; the prolific orchards, fruit, vegetable, herb and cut flower gardens (plus chickens and Indian runner ducks) tended by eight gardeners; the heated fresh spring-water swimming pool; the tennis court; the lifestyle shop (opening soon); and the Meadow Spa with eight treatment rooms in its own converted cottage. The products are by Aurelia; the bespoke massage and facial combined is sheer heaven.
The scented bedrooms in the various houses, all designed by Caryn, are as lovely as their botanical names imply, such as Lemon Balm, Mallow and English Rose, with pretty country house fabrics, fresh flowers, roll-top baths and wonderful beds. Umbrellas and lanterns are supplied, but the outside lighting, once darkness has fallen, needs to be improved.
Where will you go at night with your lantern, trying not to trip? Now, those vast restored barns form the heart of the Hibberts’ empire and supply the wow factor that every new hotel needs. The Tithe Barn, which opens off reception, makes a huge yet alluring gathering and entertainment space, while the Ox Barn has just opened as Thyme’s equally glamorous restaurant. Charlie Hibbert, Caryn’s son, ex Quo Vadis, is head chef, with front of house run by Damian Daszynski, formerly of Chiltern Firehouse. The short, sensible menu changes every day and is genuinely rooted in produce from the estate. I had braised brisket (or Brexit as the waiter mistakenly called it) with green walnuts and salsa verde. The menu is illustrated with watercolours of fruit by – who else? – Caryn. Time for Thyme, hitherto under the radar, to shine.
What makes it special is that it is owned and operated, unlike so many hotels these days, by one close-knit family (daughter Milly is also much involved). Now that the Hibberts have put all the key elements in place, what comes next? “Colouring in,” says Caryn. “Fine tuning.” In other words, this special hotel will continue to evolve and improve. It takes time to make Thyme.
Doubles from £285, including breakfast. Access possible for guests using wheelchairs.