As part of our Wisdom series, in which we share snippets of knowledge and inspiration from thought leaders in conservation, exploration and wellbeing, we sat down with Caryn Hibbert, founder of Thyme Hotel in the Cotswolds. Thyme is not only a heavenly countryside retreat but an eponymous lifestyle brand, that encompasses the transformational and restorative affect of the land, from the roots up.
How did the Thyme story start and unfold?
After living in London and practicing as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, my husband and I decided to move our family out of the city and into the English countryside. We moved into Southrop Manor 20 years ago and shortly afterwards acquired the derelict farm buildings that sat adjacent to our new home. My ambition was to breathe new life into these magnificent buildings, preserving their huge internal spaces, and reconnecting them and in turn our guests to the land and farm. In close collaboration with my father, Michael Bertioli who is an entrepreneur and scientist, we slowly began to restore the buildings, starting with the Tithe Barn and outbuildings which soon became Thyme’s founding ingredient: the cookery school.
Thyme was built as a 'village within a village' with the mantra 'take a little Thyme'. How does this approach influence the overall experience? Thyme has evolved greatly throughout the last 10 years and we actually didn’t set out to create what we have done! But while Thyme has grown, the one thing that has never faltered is our ethos – to slow down and reconnect to the land, nature and the seasons. This still rings as true today as it did over 10 years ago, with the story of the land imbued in every detail, from the design to the food, and our guest experience - designed to encourage guests to slow down and take Thyme.
The property was restored with your father, physicist and engineer, Michael Bertioli, maintaining the lightest possible imprint on the environment. How does this conscious approach pervade Thyme’s identity and offering today?
Yes, the restoration of Thyme began with a collaborative effort between myself and my father, combining our passions in architecture, conservation, and design. While I led the concept and design, dad’s motivation was the installation of green technology, ensuring these huge agricultural buildings were as energy efficient as possible and re-built for the future. Our heating systems include ground source heat pumps and wood chip boilers, supported by sophisticated ventilation and heat recovery systems as well as great attention to insulation.
We now have two boreholes, a highly effective, natural and renewable way to satisfy our heating and water needs, including for our swimming pool – a fresh, spring-water pool, which is chlorine free, instead using a state-of-the-art filtration system.
It is the attention to scientific detail that we champion and is reflected in our efforts on sustainability in our day-to-day operations from cutting single use plastics, a rigorous composting, reuse and recycle policy and prep and plate waste from the kitchens are sent for anaerobic digestion where it is converted into fertiliser.
Another big passion of yours is conservation and a love of the land, food and farming. Where did this stem from?
I have always loved the countryside, growing produce and cooking. This love stemmed from my mother who imparted her passion for plants, wildlife and family.
More recently, it is the small things that have inspired me so much - life’s details that can be so easily overlooked but that carry wonderful stories. Something that has been so remarkable in the water meadows here at Thyme is paying real attention to the birdlife – warblers migrating from Sub-Saharan Africa to the fields that surround us is so humbling, showing how far-flung places are connected and just how important to look after what’s on our doorsteps is.
In a world where sustainability is the latest buzzword, what does it mean to you and how does conservation differ?
Sustainability and eco-tourism have become buzzwords in hospitality, the result should benefit guests and hoteliers on many levels. Sustainability does not mean compromising customer experience, and in every aspect of the complex hospitality offering at Thyme that balance is never compromised.
For us, sustainability is about treading with the lightest footprint – consuming thoughtfully, understanding where things come from and where they go, and employing conscious business practice. Our conservation efforts simmer down into three core pillars: restoration, preservation and reconnection.
Can you tell us about how this resonates in the surrounding gardens and wild spaces of Thyme?
Our meadows at Thyme have been identified as a SSI (Site of Scientific Interest) and they 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, to name but a few.
How does the food encompass the slow-food philosophy, and why is it an important focus of yours?
Food has been at the heart of Thyme since inception. The cookery school, our founding ingredient, opened in 2008 right at the beginning of the slow food movement. People were beginning to ask where their food was coming from and what went into its production. Through our own gardens as well as a portfolio of carefully chosen, like minded suppliers, our ambition was to connect people with that process, championing locally and responsibly farmed food. This ambition still rings true in the Ox Barn restaurant today. Charlie’s dishes are clever and unfussy, with produce picked that morning, and elegant dishes that truly allow the ingredients to sing.
The shop and latest endeavour, Bertioli by Thyme, marries wild flower illustrations created by yourself with ethically sourced materials. Can you share a little about the origins of and materials used in your one-of-a-kind products? Bertioli by Thyme is a manifestation of our beliefs: family values, a love of nature and preservation of the wild. Our products fall into two core product pillars: Patterns of Nature and our soon to launch Sense of Nature. I hand paint our patterns, depicting botanicals that grow in important, nature-rich habitats - from the gardens and farm at Thyme to far flung wild spaces, each is designed to inspire, reconnect and spark conversation. Our Sense of Nature comprises beauty products, launching in Spring, which we are very excited about indeed. It is through our botanical patterns and scents, we tell stories of nature, imparting a love of the wild.
We carefully source our raw materials and vet our entire supply chain. Our linen has an entirely European supply chain from flax to loom, we employ digital printing to ensure there is no run off from excess dye, and for our silks we work with a small family run factory in India – you can read more about it here.
To complete the circle, we donate 1% of our revenue of Bertioli products to environmental causes.
Please can you tell us about the greater conservation projects Thyme is linked to, and how this ties into the story.
Our projects include those at home and further afield. We are at the beginning of a project with Plant Life to ensure that there’s a natural balance for our wild-flower meadows and wild spaces at Thyme, as well as when to cut, how to graze and how to ensure that as much wildlife as possible can exist here. We are also engaged with Tusk, for projects further afield. Our key mechanism for collecting donations is through our Bertioli by Thyme sales, through which we donate 1% of our revenue (not profit) to environmental causes, certified by 1% For The Planet.
We will be launching more on this later this year, so stay tuned.
Thyme is completely immersed in the rustling hedgerows and misty rivers of the English countryside, making it almost ethereal. What effect does the place have on its guest and what do you hope they take away?
A stay at Thyme is to be immersed in nature, connected to the seasons and to the land. We have tied this into the design of the spaces. A consistent design theme since the restoration began has been incorporating ‘inside/outside space’; whether the open plan kitchens, the Garden Room’s sliding doors or big bay windows, opening rooms up to natural light and the gardens beyond is key to our guests’ experience and immersion in the surrounding countryside. Our mission is for our guests to walk away with the feeling that time has slowed down and that they have connected to nature.
There has been a great paradigm shift toward a greener awareness, both by hospitality and consumers. What wisdom can you share for those of us trying to identify the brands or places that are authentic in their approach?
I would like to believe that most places out there practice what they preach but there is definitely greenwashing about and knowing where you draw the line is most important. My advice would be to do your research, set out your own guidelines with what you hold most precious to your heart, then engage with brands that uphold your ethos. Maybe set yourself some targets – such as committing to not flying for a year, buying no new clothes, or removing single use plastics from your home. It is important to remain open, allow your beliefs to evolve as your knowledge grows and sometimes, not following the popular opinion is a good thing!