A Cotswold cooking school

The Cotswold village of Southrop, between Burford and Lechlade, is the sort of place that residential
developers’ dreams are made of. Surrounded by water meadows and farmland, its 17th-century village houses, inn and picturesque manorhouse complex grouped around a medieval church exude that combination of discreet gentrification and rustic charm that has made this part of rural England so appealing to fashionable country dwellers.

So when the trustees of the former owners of Southrop Manor acquired planning permission to convert a group of barns beside the manor house into housing, it seemed inevitable that these fine stone buildings would be broken up and suburbanised, to the detriment of their magnificent internal spaces and agricultural

The local community railed against the proposals, but it took the vision and energy of Caryn Hibbert to bring about a reprieve. She and her husband, Jerry, had bought Southrop Manor with 100 acres in 2002 (the estate was broken up in 1992). Built around a 12th-century core, the house claims monastic origins, and was owned by Wadham College, Oxford, from the early 1600s until 1926.

During this time, it acquired its 17th- and 18th-century character, and in the 1930s, it was
remodelled by the Arts-and-Crafts architect Norman Jewson. With her husband working in London for much of the week, Mrs Hibbert was responsible for much of its restoration herself. Working with Bunny Guinness, she has also redesigned the gardens and created a new kitchen garden beside the River Leach.

To save the barns, she acquired them with her father, Michael Bertioli, and, with a team of local craftsmen, embarked on a six-year project that won a CPRE award in 2009. Determined to keep the internal spaces of the two main buildings intact and to not succumb to the obvious temptation of renting them out for largescale parties, her idea was to develop a business that revolved around
smaller numbers. ‘I wanted to ensure the integrity of the buildings and to make them work in the context of their setting,’ says Mrs Hibbert, ‘and so the idea of establishing the Thyme Food School emerged.’

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The school operates from two bulthaup teaching kitchens in an extension behind the 17th-century tithe barn, which has been preserved intact, its whitewashed and oak-roofed interior providing an impressive space for entertaining. Offices, a shop and small meeting rooms are housed in the barn’s Victorian extension. Mrs Hibbert is a partner in a fabric and furniture business (Teasel England, with a shop in Tetbury), through which she had much of the furniture and hand-loomed tweed upholstery
made locally.

The 1847 ox-house now opens out onto an eventing yard and stables the family horses. In the former piggery and sheep pens are office spaces, and the former tallet and dairy have been converted into luxury cottages that can be rented out separately or used, along with two others in the grooms’ quarters and an eight-bedroomed farmhouse, in conjunction with the Thyme Food
School and the entertaining space of the tithe barn, sleeping 34 in total. This is high-end self-catering, with all sorts of services and extras available. As well as a range of cookery courses, guests can learn the secrets of foraging with wild-food expert and chef Claudio Bincoletto. And the award-winning Swan pub and restaurant, which the Hibberts bought in 2005, is just down the road.

When I visited one afternoon last autumn, I found the great barn bustling with activity, its long, limed oak table being laid for a dinner that would include locally shot pheasant, artichokes and cavolo nero from the kitchen garden, Southrop pears, walnuts, Kelmscott ham, Oxford blue
cheese and other local produce. ‘My ambition was to create a modern working estate, with excellence in food and love of the land at its heart,’ says Mrs Hibbert when I ask her about the ethos of her new business, which she has named Thyme.

‘I’m lucky to have brought together a talented team of chefs, gardeners and foragers, who work with local producers and experts and are guided by the seasons. The combination of them, and the farm, our pigs and chickens, Cotswold sheep, productive gardens, food school, barns, cottages and restaurant, make this a very special place for learning, living and entertaining.’

For further information, visit www.thymeatsouthropmanor.co.uk