My Business Journey With… Caryn Hibbert

My Business Journey With… Caryn Hibbert

Starting a business in your 50s might not be the typical career path for an ex-medic to pursue, but it’s what Caryn Hibbert did when she and her husband moved to the village of Southrop in Gloucestershire and started a cookery school in 2015. A few years later, Thyme was born – more than a luxury boutique hotel, it’s a ‘village within a village’ and is now a complete lifestyle brand. Here, Caryn tells us her inspiring story of creating a successful business later in life, what she’s learned along the way, and why none of it would be possible without her family…

I was in my early 50s when I started Thyme, but my previous career was in medicine. One of my first jobs was at the Royal Free Hospital in London, where I trained to be an obstetrician and gynaecologist. At the time, obstetrics and gynaecology was a very male-dominated area of medicine, but there was one female obstetrician at the hospital who really inspired me. After working in several London hospitals, I went on to specialise in cervical cancer.

My career in medicine gave me the foundation to start my own business. Medicine is about people and science, and the art of good judgement – everything I use in my job now. The people I worked with and came across during that time made me want to stay in an industry where people are at the heart of it. I could have gone back to medicine, but life took me in another direction. 

During my time as a doctor, it was hard to juggle my career and my family. I always knew I wanted to be a mother and raise my family in the country, so when I had my three children, I knew it was the right time to take a bit of time out. I was the main carer for the children growing up, and it was liberating to finally slow down and make time for family life. My husband – who had a film studio – also worked in London, so we decided to move to Southrop in the Cotswolds in 2002. 

I became interested in the hospitality sector during my time fundraising for a children’s hospice in Surrey. I discovered a world outside of hospitals and medicine, and was able to bring together some of my other interests when we put on events for the hospice. I became involved in the food and wine sector and was able to learn about other things, too, like fashion and art. I met lots of interesting people during this time and it reaffirmed that I wanted to work in a people-focused sector. Making the transition into a different industry was an interesting one, but medicine always stays with you – I’m very much a mixture of all my career experiences to date.

I’ve always had an interest in property restoration. When I lived in London, we restored a house in Kingston Hill and loved the process. It was hard work but so worthwhile when we saw the finished result. A couple of years after moving to the Cotswolds, my father spotted the barns for Thyme and we decided to restore them together. It was a huge amount of work, as each barn needed a lot of attention, and I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do it on my own. I’m so glad we took a bit of a risk and really went for it. 

Even though I was in my early 50s, I had confidence because I had a clear vision and I knew what I wanted from the start. I always thought to myself ‘I can do that; I can make that work’. In many ways, Thyme is very much me. What we do is what I like, and I’ve learned that people will always respond well to something you truly believe in and genuinely like yourself. I’m not always as confident as I should be, but as I’ve got older, I’ve realised that the more confident you are, the better people will respond to whatever you’re doing, because it feels authentic. I had a clear vision from the beginning, and when everything started to come together, it was very exciting. When people come to Thyme and have a wonderful visit, it makes everything worthwhile. Looking back, I could never have imagined the business would be where it is now.

I couldn’t have started the business earlier in my career as I wouldn’t have had the right life experiences at the time. I feel incredibly fortunate to have done many things and had the chance to have more than one career. Thyme brings all of my experience and life lessons together, including my knowledge of medicine. The combination of medicine, nature, food and fashion – it’s all come together in the business. At school, I loved painting and I was good at art, but it wasn’t valued then like it is now. I wasn’t allowed to pursue it and was always encouraged to stick with science, so I feel incredibly fortunate that I can now combine all of my passions. 

Creating the cookery school meant there was no going back. Over the years, we have expanded the business into what it is today. It was important that Thyme had to be right for its location – from the land to the historic buildings, everything had to fit in seamlessly and feel authentic to the area we were working in. The buildings are listed, so going through rigorous planning restrictions was a huge commitment, too. During that time, the stock market crashed, which marked a change in financial security for everyone – it was a daunting time. 

The business is very much a family affair. My children gave me the confidence to start our cookery school, and now that the business has grown so much, I couldn’t do any of it without them. I feel very fortunate to have them on board – I really do love working with my children. My son is in charge of the food, my daughter leads the retail side and, in due course, we’re going to bring my youngest son onto the board so all the family are involved. It’s been our life’s work and we’ve all lived it together. My children are my biggest achievement – learning from them is a privilege and I feel so lucky to be able to do everything together.

As a business owner, I love being able to steer things in the direction I want. As a hospitality business, we’ve done something completely different – I wanted to create a lifestyle business where people could experience the country and nature, rather than just being a ‘hotel’ or place to stay. In business terms, Thyme hasn’t been a conventional journey, but it’s something that has evolved over time and will continue to do so. 

Thyme's greatest achievement has been the addition of the Ox Barn restaurant, under the direction of my son as head chef. It was a very big financial investment for us as a family and it was a big undertaking. Restoring the barn was a huge project, but we’ve ended up with something spectacular. For me, Thyme will always evolve and improve as the times change, so the greatest achievement could even be yet to come…

While it’s been a total joy, creating the business hasn’t been easy. It’s been incredibly hard. However, I always remember that it’s okay to make mistakes – how you learn from them is the important part. I don’t beat myself up over small things. As people, we can be very hard on ourselves, so it’s more important to remember that nothing is perfect. Having a willingness to accept that and be able to change is vital. 

There are several business lessons I’ve learned along the way. First, business formality is incredibly important – being clear and honest, and having structure is key to staying professional. I’ve also learned to always write things down. It might sound simple but having clear intentions is so important – you need to be clear in what you’re trying to do, not only for your own sake, but for others, too. Formal structure is a must. Learning how all of the systems work has been interesting. There are several sides to business and having a good understanding of each part is vital. 

When doing the market research for Thyme, I specifically didn’t look at other hotels in the UK. The actual name has several meanings – thyme is a wonderful culinary herb, and it also symbolises the ‘time’ it takes to slow down and appreciate nature. We were ahead of the curve. Our passion for the land and nature has been with us from the beginning and we were one of the first places to do what we do. 

For those who might be thinking about starting a business later in life, my advice is to do what you truly love. You have to be passionate, as things will always be much harder than you initially think. It’s also important to have confidence in what you like, because if you like it, whatever that may be, lots of other people will like it, too. Having a clear idea of what you want to achieve and creating a plan is also a must. Don’t expect things to happen overnight – do one thing properly, then move onto the next thing. Do everything as best you can, but make sure you have patience – baby steps are often the best steps when it comes to creating your own business or brand.

The most rewarding part of my job is seeing Thyme fully booked, and watching guests enjoy themselves. When people have had a lovely time and have learned about the history of the place, there’s no better feeling. In the future, I hope people can spend a week or longer on the property to really immerse themselves in the experience, as well as visiting for a weekend.

It’s been difficult looking after my parents while running the business. When you get to your 40s or 50s, you’re at the age where your parents start to become old, and you’re the generation who takes responsibility for them, as well as the children. My love of the country and botanicals came from my mother and I wouldn’t have been able to restore the property without my father’s help. Both my parents have lived with me – my mother passed away about 18 months ago, and my father currently lives with me. It’s a big responsibility when your parents need looking after, but I’m incredibly thankful and grateful I can do it. 

The past year has taught me the importance of flexibility. At the start of the pandemic, I never imagined we’d be in this position and would still be closed to visitors. Being nimble and ready to change quickly, for every eventuality, has been so important. Over the course of the pandemic, we’ve tried to adapt and play to our strengths at Thyme. Now more than ever, people are looking to immerse themselves in nature and relax in open spaces – in many ways, our business model serves us well for life post-lockdown. When we reopened after the first lockdown, we had an amazing response. 

During lockdown, I’ve had more time to pursue the creative side of the business. We still have gardens and a farm to look after, which continue as normal, but we’ve used the extra time to think about where the business is going – it’s true that out of adversity comes opportunity. It’s extremely hard being closed and not being able to do what we do best, but we’ve had plenty to keep us busy and do the ‘colouring in’ of Thyme. We went through the property and redecorated where necessary and have been planning some exciting new additions. We’re going to add The Orchid House in the spa, which will be a place for guests to relax for the day, and we’re also looking at adding a poolside bar. The retail side of the business is so important, too – we’re slowly starting to produce our own products to expand into a complete lifestyle brand. 

Interior companies in my little black book include Watkins & Adams and Lorfords Antiques who both make the most beautiful pieces. I also love Twig and Brownrigg Interiors in Tetbury who both make amazing pieces – Tetbury is a fantastic place for spotting antiques. In terms of fabrics, Colefax and Fowler is a go-to – the country house look from the 80s has become so fashionable again and this brand does it so well. GP Baker makes beautiful fabrics and wallcoverings too, as do Lewis & Wood and Chelsea Textiles.

After lockdown, I’m looking forward to visiting Hotel Endsleigh in Devon with my husband. I’d also love to go to Wildland, a huge conservation project in the Scottish Highlands. In terms of restaurants, I can’t wait to go back to River Café when I’m next in London. 

Some of my favourite places include The Newt in Somerset and Babylonstoren in South Africa. I adore Africa – I first visited over 20 years ago and it stole my heart. I love being in wild places where the human footprint is as small as possible. Northern Kenya was a highlight, and I love Botswana and Tanzania, too. A little closer to home, we have a farm in Lincolnshire, which I visit whenever possible. 

There are lots of exciting things in the pipeline for Thyme, including an expansion on our tabletop and silkware collections. We’re also going to launch our own beauty line – it’s in the last stages of approval and I can’t wait for everyone to see it. 


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