Tuesday, 7 June 2016
The weather forecast was not good. The BBC predicted heavy showers, albeit with one of those confusing "sun-rain-cloud-lightning" combo icons that makes you wonder if they're not just covering all bases. 90% chance of rain my iPhone said, another only vaguely useful bit of information, for in the event that it didn't rain they could always just say "ah, but we also said there was a 10% chance it wouldn't!". So we peered out nervously from the windows of our train as it powered west from Paddington, eyeing each dark patch of sky suspiciously, fingers and toes crossed.
Because it is possible to enjoy yourself in London whatever the weather. Instead of a walk around Hyde Park or the South Bank you can mooch around the National Portrait Gallery or the Victoria and Albert Museum; instead of lunch in the garden at the Drapers Arms or the terrace at Pont de la Tour you could, well, just watch the weather bash the windows from inside or get above the clouds at Duck & Waffle or Galvin @ Windows. There are always options. But the only reason to go to the countryside is to enjoy the countryside, and I've had quite enough weekend breaks sheltering from the elements in the nearest pub or killing the time before dinner in the hotel room, thank you very much. I want sun, or at the very least an absence of precipitation.
So as the sky, dense and dark with moisture, threatened to break and spoil our day at any moment, the taxi pulled up in front of the stunning 17th century converted farmhouse at Thyme, in the tiny Cotswolds hamlet of Southrop. And once we'd dumped our bags and had a quick tour of the main buildings (a cozy bar decorated with life-size fake sheep; vast, gleaming new kitchens used for masterclasses and lucky resident chefs; a cavernous events space for lucky guests), we headed down the road for lunch.
The Swan at Southrop is part of Thyme, and you can see the family resemblance. Cleanly and precisely restored but still retaining enough of the original Thomas Hardy-country charm, it's the quintessential ideal of the quiet country pub, but unlike many country pubs you may wander into for a pint and a snack, the food offering here is well above par. A Scotch egg was faultless, solid white and a dark-orange, runny yolk, surrounded by chunky, loose sausage meat and seasoned well. And crab tagliatelle had plenty of seafood, good thick bouncy pasta and leaves of fresh basil artfully wilting on top. We ate them in the garden outside, that strange pre-storm air hanging heavily around us, wondering when the heavens would open.
After lunch, expecting to have to dash inside any minute, we tentatively wandered around the immaculate gardens attached to Thyme house, the Toad Hall annexe with its galleried dining hall in honey coloured stone, which housed our room for the night. Lawns so bright green and perfectly cut they looked like laid carpet, a dinky orchard of head-high apple trees surrounding a large metal brazier. Then down the gravel path and away from the main buildings, to a field of wild flowers and in its centre a vast oak tree with a trunk so thick you could drive a road through it. On any other day this would be a deeply surreal journey but today, with the dark, low clouds and strange syrupy air that played tricks with your eyes and sucked all the contrast out of everything like some low budget sci-fi camera trick, it took on a particularly bizarre turn. It was like walking through the illustrations in a Lewis Carroll book, everything neat and tidy and precisely drawn and somehow other than natural.
But whoever came to the Cotswolds for reality? This is escapism as only England knows how, an Anglo-Disneyland of picturebook stone cottages and ancient moss-softened stone bridges over babbling streams, a way of life that the rest of the country hasn't known for 500 years, if it ever did at all. It's not so much that time has stood still here that just bypassed it completely; from my attic bedroom window I saw a couple of people in brown overalls lazily tending to their immaculate front gardens outside a similarly perfect building just over the way, and wondered for a moment what they did for a living, what life choices led to this moment of them taking part in this strange open-air theatre. Or even if they were real at all, and the moment we and our luggage were packed back off to Swindon station they would flicker briefly into black and white and then disappear completely.
That evening, in that grand dining hall, now lined with fine glassware and candles and stirring with smart staff offering English sparkling wine, we ate a fine, Modern British menu cooked by the only chef in the country who could look like he belonged somewhere like this, Jeremy Lee. Canapés of cod's roe and peas, a dainty teacup of chilled lovage soup, a delicate artichoke and Berkswell tart, a bold, firm fillet of trout in a lawn-green sauce. It was a supremely intelligent menu, accessible and friendly but still with enough odd twists and turns to keep you guessing. There were matching wines from France and New Zealand, and a rice pudding for dessert studded with elderflowers and rhubarb. It was all quite wonderful.
And the rain? It never came. In the morning, the peculiarly dreamlike atmosphere of the day before had been replaced by a different kind of fug - persistent and powerful hangovers. And after a short stroll and a brief lie under the shade of an oak tree to regain our strength (where I was only once woken by a dog licking my face), it was soon time to repack our bags and head out of town into cold harsh reality. Or, as it's otherwise known, Swindon rail station. Back in London now, it's quite hard to believe I ever was in that strange, serene place, with its lawns and its orchards and its old oak trees. And I'd recommend you go yourself, have a Chase martini in the bar, chase the chaffinches around the herb garden, wake up to a breakfast of summer fruits and local yoghurt, if it weren't for the distant sneaking doubt that Thyme, and Southrop, in this idyllic corner of the Oxfordshire countryside, ever existed at all.
We were guests at Thyme but paid our way at the Swan at Southrop. Thyme hosts a series of guest chef dinners (called Thyme's Table, quite brilliantly), more details available here.