The River Leach lies to the east of Thyme and the agricultural land of the estate and it both shapes and dominates the landscape and the ecology of the region. The village of Southrop was simply known by locals as Leach up to the mid-thirteenth century: just one indicator of the river’s importance. I first encountered its meandering path in the early spring of 2009, walking The Salt Way, reminiscent of Roman appetite, where salt was sent south from Droitwich through Gloucestershire in Roman times; its low, broad bank visible along the valley, giving its name to Great and Little Salt Hill, criss-crossed by babbling brooks that feed into the river. The Roman connection struck a note with my Italian heritage; the landscape struck a note in my heart.
This variegated mosaic of brooks, streams and river, agricultural fields and rural constructions create myriad habitats for wildlife. The characteristic old dry-stone walls as field boundaries beside wet meadows, the woodlands, the modern linear field hedges and artificial water features all add to the complex nature of the Leach valley: wet meadows, marsh marigold (Calta palustris), bull rushes and scent of water mint. It could almost be Treviso, walking along the Sile river with its crystalline waters and brown trout. But I am not in my Venetian countryside, I am in Southrop, the pearl of Cotwolds.
In autumn and spring each year without fail, the river’s clear waters, filtered by the Cotswold limestone valleys and escarpments through which it flows on its journey towards the Thames, spill over the banks, flooding our water meadows. The fishbone drainage structure of eastern wet meadows is the heritage of the Manor’s medieval monks' sustainable land management. They understood the importance of the river’s place in the wider landscape ecology, the significance of " the genius loci" and the waters were tamed. This unique and simple marshland water management created energy, new pastures and arable fields, merging natural and artificial habitats. The village road was causewayed by 1470 but has never stemmed the flooding, so the river's wild nature is an annual presence, close as it is to Southrop Manor (private residence of Thyme’s founder), the church and this village of cottages and small farm-houses mostly dating from the 17th and early 18th centuries. Hops and their descendants were cultivated then, but have now gone wild again, becoming my favourite wild food, "bruscandoli" or hop shoots. The river has shaped the lives of this community for centuries and continues to do so.
Within gently sloping valleys, merging into ponds and brooks, there are about two miles of the river’s course traversing Thyme’s water meadows. The custodianship of this stretch of river was brought home to me in 2010 by the evidence of a male otter’s presence along the riverbank, although it was not until 2015 that we caught it on camera. The presence of such an elusive creature is symbolic of the pristine nature of the river and its banks; how intensely important it is to preserve this environment. So the rules we adopted were simple: reduce disturbance, provide food and access to water; provide shelter. And not just for the otters, but for the water-voles, the mice, the owls and hawks that hunt along its banks, the grasses and trees that weave through the countryside on its shoulder. "Natural (wild) resources management" may reduce short term productivity in the agricultural context, but increases biodiversity, reduces erosion inducing biomass formation and increases the potential foraging opportunities (a subject very close to my heart and perhaps ripe for further study). However, we named these areas ‘The Wildings’, to ensure they remained just that and we do not "forage" there. The landscape around Thyme has a delicate ecosystem and we are mindful of all the areas even if they may appear to be neglected; they are left to nature but monitored, protected for future generations of visitors and wildlife alike.that and we do not "forage" there. The landscape around Thyme has a delicate ecosystem and we are mindful of all the areas even if they may appear to be neglected, they are left to nature but monitored, protected for future generations of visitors and wildlife alike.