My month in the garden: Meet the family behind Thyme, Cotswolds, and tips for sowing cauliflower

Bunny Guinness
·11-min read
Family affair: Caryn Hibbert with her children, Millie and Charlie, main - Clara Molden
Family affair: Caryn Hibbert with her children, Millie and Charlie, main - Clara Molden

I started working with Caryn Hibbert, founder of Thyme at Southrop, Gloucestershire, back in 2008. I helped Caryn with the design of her own garden and then the cookery school garden. I quickly realised Caryn was no ordinary person.

Previously she had worked as an obstetrician and gynaecologist then, with three children under three, she moved into philanthropic work and helped to raise funds to build a children’s’ hospices. Her next move was to Southrop, where her creativity began to bloom.

Having acquired a stunning Cotswold manor house and a range of barns and outbuildings, Caryn decided to develop them into a “village within a village”. Creating this unique place, more lifestyle than hotel, has been her passion and focus for more than 10 years.

The beautifully converted buildings sit within 150 acres of farmland, including beautiful water meadows, acres of grazing Welsh black mountain sheep, bees, an extensive orchard and a large kitchen garden.

The ethos of the Ox Barn restaurant in the 19th-century former oxen house is local food using that day’s ingredients. Head chef Charlie Hibbert, Caryn’s son, helpfully tips me off to great veg varieties that he is using. Camilla, Caryn’s daughter, is helping to develop the retail and marketing.

Green and edible

Work that paid off: View of the Ox Barn garden, designed by Bunny Guinness - Clara Molden
Work that paid off: View of the Ox Barn garden, designed by Bunny Guinness - Clara Molden

We decided to fill the cookery school garden with edible plants. I designed it using olive trees (which thrive here) planted on a grid, while a large pergola with a huge table and benches fills one corner.

A run of raised beds that double as low seating are filled mainly with herbs; these flank hedges of serpentine cloud-pruned box that line the route to a stunning end elevation, the recently restored tythe barn.

The gardens to Thyme Farmhouse were the next project. For this we created terraces front and back. I planted a circle of medlar trees around a fire pit and strung them with three hammocks, also a mini orchard with a wild-flower meadow and lawns for lounging on in sunny weather

Dining out

The gardens at Thyme, a hotel, restaurant and cookery school in Southrop, Gloucestershire - Clara Molden
The gardens at Thyme, a hotel, restaurant and cookery school in Southrop, Gloucestershire - Clara Molden

The garden to the Ox Barn restaurant has been complete for almost a year. The old farmyard forms a space roughly 40 x 30m surrounded by superb agricultural buildings and a stone wall on the south side over which you can just glimpse grazing sheep in the parkland.

It was an empty gravel and concrete yard when we started. We divided the space with paths on a simple grid and punctuated the grid with octagonal, artichoke-topped, acid-etched metal arbours. These are now covered in espalier pears and hornbeam arches so the structural metal is unobtrusive and well furnished with greenery.

Two slightly raised lawns are perfect for family games and relaxing, and sofas, chairs and tables fill the large outdoor terrace, a sun-filled space ideal for eating and drinking. A central raised pool with a chicken fountain made by Helen Denerley sits on the coping. The chicken is made from reclaimed metal cooking utensils, a mix of spoons, whisks, beaters and sieves artfully worked together.

Planting is laid out in stripes to reinforce the grid pattern. Simple rows of plants such as peonies, ‘James L Austin’ roses and Nepeta grandiflora ‘Summer Magic’ – the latter is more upright than most catmints and longer flowering. The gravel planting is looser and flowing with agapanthus, verbena, Helleborus x sternii and other reliable plants.

The spa gardens have also taken shape over the last few years, filled with many scented plants such as lavender – highly conducive to relaxation – roses and thymes. Topiary punctuates the laxer, flowing forms.

Four multi-stem Osmanthus aquifolium trees (in baseless pots) frame the spa reception, which is housed in a pukka greenhouse on the site of a derelict one. Osmanthus trees are a favourite of mine. Sweet-smelling flowers in late summer/ autumn and neat shiny foliage make this sweet olive or tea olive an ideal small tree for an intimate space. It is also hardy to -20C (-4F).

The Thyme brand continues to evolve; every time I visit, Caryn has a new idea or two and we get out the tracing paper and start working up the next bit of paradise.

Tarte tatin recipe 

By Charlie Hibbert, head chef at Thyme

Apple tarte tatin from Thyme  - Thyme 
Apple tarte tatin from Thyme - Thyme

SERVES

6-8

INGREDIENTS

  • 6-8 large cox or russet apples – peeled, cored and cut into quarters (Also works with pears and quinces)

  • Juice of 1 lemon

  • 40g cold water

  • 260g caster sugar

  • 40g unsalted butter, cold and diced

  • 80ml calvados

  • 400g puff pastry

  • Plain flour for dusting

METHOD

  1. Pre-heat your oven to 200C/180C fan/Gas 6. Select an ovenproof pan wide enough to have the apples in a single layer.

  2. Put sugar and water into pan and place over a high heat until sugar has turned dark caramel, do not stir.

  3. Toss apples in lemon juice and, once caramel is ready, carefully toss through the caramel and allow to cook for three minutes.

  4. Add in calvados and butter. Cook for a further minute; toss everything together.

  5. Remove pan from heat and allow to cool for 15 minutes. Using a pair of tongs, turn the apples cut side up.

  6. Roll out puff pastry on to a clean, floured surface, and cut a round to fit the pan.

  7. Tuck pastry around the apples. Using a paring knife, pierce a small hole in centre.

  8. Put the tarte Tatin in oven for 20 mins or until pastry is crisp and golden.

  9. Allow tarte to sit for 5-10 mins before carefully turning out on to a plate. Serve with cream and ice cream. 

Two tree discoveries

Know your stuff: Tree Vision cards -  Andrew Crowley
Know your stuff: Tree Vision cards - Andrew Crowley

An oak branch fell on a friend’s parked car outside her aptly named Oak Tree House, writing off the empty car. Chatting to Pete Glassey, head forester at Burghley, he explained the phenomenon of summer branch drop.

It is to do with crown retrenchment: apparently sound branches in full leaf, usually on a still, sunny, hot day after a thunderstorm, will just drop off. This is probably to help the tree survive the taxing conditions of a hot, dry summer and allows them to balance up their root/shoot ratio more favourably. A few other types of tree do this, too.

Another remarkable tree man, Tony Kirkham, has just launched a set of 30 cards called “Tree Vision” with illustrations and descriptions of 30 different trees, from Kew. As Kirkham says, “It’s aimed at anyone, from children to adults, who wants to learn basic identification and information about trees and will make a lovely present.”

How to confuse a cauliflower 

Double trouble: Bunny Guinness in the polytunnel - Andrew Crowley
Double trouble: Bunny Guinness in the polytunnel - Andrew Crowley

This year has been a first for me in terms of fantastic cauliflowers. I sowed the seeds of Fortaleza F1 from DT Brown in mid-May and planted them into a raised bed in the vented section of my Keder polytunnel.

In this section, about a third of the roof is covered with green mesh (but no polythene) so is open to the air at all times – and pests can’t get in.

With cauliflowers, especially an F1 variety, they all tend to come at once. To pre-empt this, I spaced them about 20cm apart (about a third of the recommended spacing).

If plants are grown close together the extra stress usually causes a few to dominate, so you get a variation in growth rates. Raised beds also allow you to tighten your spacings. The protected environment with no water stress is the key. The huge variation in growth rate allowed us to enjoy cauliflower salads, cheese and tray bakes over a far longer period.

Seasonal attire

Bunny Guiness wearing the Genus gillet - Andrew Crowley
Bunny Guiness wearing the Genus gillet - Andrew Crowley

The change in weather has been sudden. But now, having been kitted out with some great, warm gardening clothes, I no longer need to spend time hardening myself off before I start extreme weather gardening. Genus (genus.gs) sent me some of their waterproof gardening trousers and they have revolutionised my wet and winter gardening.

Made of non-sweaty waterproof fabric (I can straddle low wet hedges in them happily), they are warm (great for arthritic knees) and have built-in (but removeable) knee pads.

They have a multitude of reinforced pockets so secateurs don’t rip them to shreds, and adjustable leg widths. This all adds up to them being my favourite pair of leg coverings. They wash well, too – though I rarely do this. The Genus Dixter Gilet is a big hit. Stab-proof pockets and a well-cut shape enable me to stow knives, phone and secateurs safely. Even my daughter has been eyeing it up lately.

Heart of the business

We decided to fill the cookery school garden with edible plants. I designed it using olive trees (which thrive here) planted on a grid while a large pergola with a huge table and benches fills one corner. A run of raised beds with seating, filled mainly with herbs, flank the serpentine cloud-pruned box hedges that line the route to the stunning, recently restored tythe barn.

The gardens to Thyme Farmhouse came next. For this we created terraces front and back, a hammockry around a fire pit, a mini orchard with a wild flower meadow and lawns for lounging.

The spa gardens followed, filled with many scented plants such as lavender – highly conducive to relaxation - roses and thymes. Topiary punctuates the laxer, flowing forms. Four multi-stem Osmanthus aquifolium trees (in baseless pots) frame the spa reception, housed in a pukka greenhouse on the site of a derelict one.

Osmanthus trees are a favourite of mine. Sweet-smelling flowers in late summer/autumn and neat shiny foliage make this sweet olive or tea olive an ideal small tree for an intimate space. It is also hardy to minus 20 degrees C.

Further projects

The central raised pool with a chicken fountain made by Helen Denerley sits on the coping.  - Clara Molden
The central raised pool with a chicken fountain made by Helen Denerley sits on the coping. - Clara Molden

The garden to the Oxbarn restaurant has been complete for almost a year. The old farmyard forms a space roughly 40x30m surrounded by superb agricultural buildings and a stone wall on the south side over which you can just glimpse grazing sheep in the parkland. It was an empty gravel and concrete yard when we started.

We divided the space with paths on a simple grid and punctuated the grid with octagonal, artichoke-topped, acid-etched metal arbours. Thesa are now covered in espalier pears and hornbeam arches so the structural metal is unobtrusive and well furnished with greenery.

Two slightly raised lawns are perfect for lounging on a sunny day. Sofas, chairs and tables fill the large outdoor terrace, a sun-filled space ideal for eating and drinking. A central raised pool with a chicken fountain made by Helen Denerley  sits on the coping. The chicken is made from reclaimed metal cooking utensils, a mix of spoons, whisks, beaters and sieves artfully worked together.

Planting is laid out in stripes to reinforce the grid pattern. Simple rows of plants such as peonies, ‘James L Austin’ roses and Nepeta ‘Summer Magic’ - the latter is more upright than most catmints and definitely longer flowering. In contrast, the gravel planting is looser and flowing with agapanthus, verbena, Helleborus x sternii and other reliable plants.

The Thyme brand continues to evolve; every time I visit Caryn has a new idea or two and we get out the tracing paper and start working up the next bit of paradise.

New plant find

A fine specimen of the curry plant, Murraya koenigii, known in India as the sweet limdo tree, was given to me recently. Fresh leaves are used ubiquitously in India for curries, the dried leaves are a poor substitute.

At the beginning of cooking I fling in about six leaves when I am sweating the onions; it gives curry dishes a great depth and authentic flavour.

An attractive, glossy leaved tree, it will live in the kitchen when we get into the depths of winter. As a member of the citrus family it likes similar conditions.

Kohl rabi success

Very tasty: Kohl rabi Kossak F1 - Gap Photos
Very tasty: Kohl rabi Kossak F1 - Gap Photos

Another hit this year is kohl rabi Kossack F1 (DT Brown). This amazingly nutritious and totally delicious brassica is the easiest to grow. So far I have just diced it into salads – it has a sweet, very gentle brassica flavour and is crunchy but not tough.

It can be left growing in situ through a mild winter but will also lift and store in a frost-free place for around four months. Apparently this variety stays tender even when large, but so far we are picking at around 150mm diameter.

See Bunny’s YouTube video’s Thyme Oxbarn Garden, Spa Garden and Cookery School Garden.