Thyme boasts a Masterchef winner and Bunny Guinness-designed gardens – thank heavens it finally has boutique hotel rooms to stay over in, says Juliet Kinsman
The Cotswolds is unfalteringly London’s favourite destination for weekends away. But what makes Thyme so refreshing is its invitation to step out of the usual DFL (down from London) pattern and tune in with nature rather than merely bunk up somewhere quaint. This sage-trimmed Cotswold stone enclave is especially comforting as it doesn’t feel as themed, ersatz or contrived as foodie or rustic escapes can. Yes, the interiors include the big Tudor portraits, glimmering chandeliers and specially commissioned furniture, with chic suites styled by award-winning set designer Roger Hall, but Thyme’s greatest charm is that it genuinely connects you to the countryside – something urbanites crave now more than ever. Souls are soothed as you walk through meadows rich with wildlife, where tranquility is interrupted only by the sound of kingfishers, buzzards and a river that babbles at the edge of the woodland. (The hedgehogs, hares and water voles remain undetected.) The farmland and the friendly hotel team gently urged us to savour the moment. In every sense. The ingredients used in their cookery classes – and served at breakfast and in the 17th-century ‘estate to plate’ pub – are grown or bred on the doorstep.
When Caryn and Jerry Hibbert moved to the Cotswolds in 2002, so began a huge restoration project in cahoots with Caryn’s physicist and entrepreneur father, Michael Bertioli. A passion for fresh food inspired Thyme to open as a destination cookery school in 2009. The property, and indeed the chocolate-box cobbled village of Southrop, hit the headlines when Kate Moss got married in its Norman church in 2011; a tad ironic since the model is not exactly the postergirl for folks who like to pig out on home-cooked food.
The glut of agricultural buildings ripe for conversion saw Southrop develop as a venue for corporate events and group occasions, but what’s really welcome is that you can finally book double rooms for the night. Fast forward to today’s offerings of a country-house hotel with a chic bar, an elegant art-filled dining room a two-minute walk away at the Swan, five self-catering cottages and plans for a spa and restaurant.
There was an outcry earlier this year when the Oxford Junior Dictionary culled words linked to nature to make room for a lexicon deemed more relevant to today’s culture. It was goodbye ‘acorn’, ‘buttercup’, ‘pasture’, ‘willow’, and hello ‘broadband’. This was a stark reminder that, as a society, we need to get back in touch with our flora and fauna. It is Thyme’s knack for connecting guests with the land that resonated with me most. In an era where every fool able to chew calls themselves a foodie, we all seem to declare concern for the provenance of what we’re eating yet, at the same time, we brag about exotic finds for complicated recipes from celebrity chefs. The wiser thing to do, surely, is to use what’s right on our doorstep? Which brings to mind that other obsession of fashionable foodies: foraging.
Claudio Bincoletto is the hotel’s ethnobotanist. Join him for one of his wild food walks, which distinguish between responsible foraging and reckless plundering. Southrop Estate is particularly special for Bincoletto because it was where the north Italian got back to nature after 15 years as a chef in London. ‘I put all my knowledge into creating something that merged Caryn’s vision of creating a point of excellence and emphasised this concept of man’s relationship with the environment.’ So significant is this subject to the chef that he went back to university to study for an MSc in Sustainable Land Management and Human Wellbeing at Essex’s Writtle College.
‘Thyme has given me the chance to create a wild garden that expands across the estate with rare plants and mushrooms,’ says Claudio. Having grown up on a farm and picked mushrooms as a child, Claudio gets a kick out of enjoying nature but his mission is also to improve what he calls environmental citizenship. He sees foraging as another form of destruction where foragers should pay an environmental tax if they’re plundering the land for commercial gain. ‘There is a difference between food and ingredients, which is not highlighted often enough,’ he explains with the kind of enthusiasm that is infectious. ‘There is a subtle distinction between understanding where ingredients come from and how to make the best of them.’ A chef for 30 years, his latest hypothesis is hinged on the taste of wild fruit, and that there is not a standard for these ingredients, with celebrity chefs falsely endorsing products. ‘Ninety-eight per cent of our wild mushrooms are in fact imported from farms in The Netherlands,’ he remarks.
Local and seasonal used to be a commendable boast on restaurant menus – now it is the norm. Even so, the menu at Thyme’s sister pub, the Swan, impressively takes it to the next level: there is a detailed write-up on suppliers and what is in season.
Really thinking about food is their forte. Daryll Taylor and Marjorie Lang – the charismatic chefs who host the signature cookery courses – are inspiring and down to earth. They whirl guests around the kitchen garden to pluck what is needed, providing a lesson in sustainability as well as a showcase of culinary skills. On our visit we sampled borlotti beans, padrón peppers and cucamelons plucked straight from the stalks and were introduced to the tangy tastes of shiso and oca leaves spilling from one of the lush green beds.
Back in the noughties, Babington House was the highest profile boutique hotel saluted for offering discerning city dwellers an urbane take on rural experiences. You borrowed shiny wellies, spa’d, then slipped on stilletos to sip cocktails made by award-winning members-club mixologists. Other hotels mimicked this ‘city slicker does country stay’ with varying degrees of success. I can’t forget asking a barman at a Cotswolds bolthole, decked out by an East London interior designer, to recommend a refreshing springtime apéritif. The young chap nervously recommended a creamy white Russian – clearly the only cocktail he could remember the name of. Today’s customers crave somewhere that feels congruous in a country context; if it’s serving city fare it needs to deliver quality. Style-hungry hotel lovers can’t get enough of the gardener-in-cahoots-with-the-kitchen shtick at The Pig Hotels, care of one canny hotelier who is as zeitgeist-aware as it gets (take a bow, Robin Hutson). The difference with Thyme is that the all-cooking, all-gardening hands-on owner lives in the neighbouring manor house. Soho House has opened its farmhouse operation in Oxfordshire and it’s especially beloved by those eager to blend in with the fashion set and feels comparable to what you’d find in their glamorous lounges in Berlin’s Mitte or NYC’s Meatpacking District. Meanwhile Thyme is GL7 through and through (the postcode which well-heeled locals are quick to remind you is distinguished). You don’t forget for a second you’re in Gloucestershire as you roam the sprawling livestock-sprinkled grounds or sit in Bunny’s sun-kissed courtyard gardens amid herbs, hawthorns and box hedging. It’s an authentic experience that leaves a sweet taste in your mouth.
Doubles from £260 per night.