This Cotswolds idyll – which encompasses a series of cottages, manor houses and barns in the village of Southrop – is a true epicurean haven of tranquillity that’s guaranteed to be unlike any other hotel you’ve stayed at, says Paula Lester.
When is a hotel not a hotel? Answer: when a family-run establishment begins life as a cookery school, then slowly — and carefully — morphs into an utterly charming and eclectic Nature-led enterprise, including 31 rooms, a restaurant in a former ox barn, a pub and a spa, set amid a peaceful 150-acre estate near Lechlade, in Gloucestershire.
Described by its founder and Creative Director, Caryn Hibbert, as ‘a village within a village’, I confess I had not fully comprehended the scale of the operation at Thyme, nor how beguiling this corner of the Cotswolds is, until we visited in May.
However, as soon as we checked into our ‘room’ — the characterful and dog-friendly Pear Tree cottage in the village of Southrop (pronounced, I am reliably informed, as Suth-er-up) — we realised why Thyme consistently receives rave reviews.
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For, far from being another expensive, faceless hotel, where all the interior-designed rooms are essentially the same, this is a true one-off. From the cheerful soft furnishings — featuring Caryn’s hand-painted Bertioli botanical prints (above)—to flocks of chattering house sparrows and the screaming swifts overhead, it’s simply magical.
It’s the individual personality of the rooms that sets Thyme apart from so many other luxurious country-house hotels in similarly bucolic locations. Each features prints and/or wallpapers designed by Caryn, then digitised by her film director/animator husband, Jerry—the neat repeat patterns in ‘Radish’ and ‘Carrot’ are particularly pleasing. ‘English rose’ — a pale blush oasis in The Lodge, overlooking an ancient Cedar tree and the estate’s flock of black Welsh mountain sheep in the fields beyond — is a firm favourite with guests, too (below).
However, for those who prefer more privacy, your own cottage (it’s also possible to book Old Walls, a two double-bedroom eyrie) is where it’s at. OK, it’s small — two-up, two-down — but I fell in love with Pear Tree Cottage the moment we stepped into the stone-walled garden. Downstairs, there’s a sweet kitchen with double doors onto a terrace — where we enjoyed an old fashioned cocktail from the trug of welcome goodies — plus a cosy lounge with a fireplace. And, up the winding wooden staircase, a marshmallow pink, tongue and groove-panelled bedroom, with a huge bed and a hawthorn-bloom patterned headboard facing a roll top bath. Furthermore, as well as a roomy en-suite, there’s a spoiling separate dressing room that was ideal for doing my hair and make-up without getting on my husband’s nerves (too much).
Eating and drinking
Dining in the expansive, yet welcoming Ox Barn Restaurant (above; lovingly restored by Caryn’s late father, Michael Bertioli, a physicist and engineer), with towering full height ceilings that lead the eye to marvel at the lattice of gargantuan beams overhead, is another defining quality that makes being at Thyme such a pleasure.
Whether lingering over breakfast — with such delights as beetroot and ginger juice made from produce grown in the hotel’s own kitchen garden — then tucking into roast lamb with asparagus and anchoïade at dinner, it was hard to tear ourselves away from this cleverly reimagined 19th century agricultural building. Overseen by the Hibberts’ son, Charlie (formerly at London’s Quo Vadis), the menu is simple, with a modern British/French twist that makes tasty use of picked-that-day ingredients.
How they’ll keep you busy
I lucked out by attending an afternoon tea cookery course, led by talented young chef, Alex Goulding (brother of pop star, Ellie, who lives nearby), which saw me learning how to make scones, crème pâtissière, buckwheat and smoked salmon blinis and sweet shortcrust pastry for delicate fruit tarts. The soothing Meadow Spa offers a range of wellbeing treatments designed to harness the power of breath. Then why not take a dip in the heated springwater swimming pool next door, before enjoying a light meal in The Orchid House or striking a few balls on the tennis court.
What else to do while you’re there
Explore the Bunny Guinness-designed gardens (above) and the water meadows (below), a Site of Special Scientific Interest, where wild orchids, dragonflies and kingfishers abound. There’s always a great programme of exhibitions and talks in the 16th century Tithe Barn, as well as two boutiques selling Bertoli’s silk wear, tableware and homeware.
You can also grab a pint and some pub food at The Swan, the Hibberts’ recently refurbished hostelry in Southrop. If you want to venture further afield, follow the footpath by the side of Pear Tree Cottage for about two miles to Eastleach, where you (and your canine companions) can eat alfresco at The Victoria Inn.
Who is it for?
Anyone wanting to take a properly relaxing breather in a spot where time appears to stand still. Thyme’s welcoming approach also means that even non hotel residents can eat at The Ox Barn Restaurant and use the Meadow Spa. In fact, The Baa Bar (once lambing sheds) is the only residents-only area. It’s also worth noting that, although Thyme is (subject to a few house rules) properly dog-friendly — to the extent that my husband, Simon, was able to relax on the terrace with our three Labradors in tow while I completed my cookery course — children under the age of 12 are not permitted, except for when staying at the Old Walls cottage.
What gives it the ‘wow’ factor?
Its serene setting, where field upon field of long grass sways gently in the breeze and every detail of a guest’s experience has been meticulously thought out. That the Hibbert family is so invested in the running of the hotel (Caryn and Jerry live next door and their daughter, Camilla, is the General Manager) makes a difference, too. As does the calibre of the staff. Yes, you’d expect them to be first class, but they are all so kind and helpful — without being obsequious — that we immediately felt at ease.
The one thing we’d change
When staying in one of the Thyme properties in Southrop, it would be good to be able to park your car off the main road through the village, which is flanked by steep-sided pavements that hamper opening car doors. As, although all the cottages are within easy walking distance of The Ox Barn, the car park is on the other side of the hotel, which makes ferrying wheeled cases along the gravel paths a little tricky.
Rooms at Thyme start from £400 a night, including breakfast. Call 01367 850174 or visit www.thyme.co.uk for more details.