Leadership learnings and looking to the future at St. Paul’s. With Sandra Lynes Timbrell

In this Skip the Queue podcast episode I speak with Sandra Lynes Timbrell, Director of Visitor Experience at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell has worked in the cultural sector for 20 years, holding senior roles at some of the UK’s most recognisable sites, including Shakespeare’s Globe and English Heritage properties. She is Director of Visitor Engagement at St Paul’s Cathedral, where she leads several teams including commercial, visitor experience, security, collections and marketing.

She is responsible for creating and delivering operational models that enable attractions to be financially secure whilst simultaneously creating a welcoming environment for visitors.

Sandra has mentored young people starting out in the heritage industry, and delivered numerous talks and training sessions for Museum & Heritage Show; Women in Leadership and SOLT; the leading membership organization for the performing arts in the UK. She holds an MA in Heritage Management.

“What we do find is that worship and tourism aren’t mutually exclusive. And that’s something that the Dean and certainly the more pastoral colleagues I have, are really keen to point out, that you don’t simply have to just be a tourist. You don’t simply have to just be here to worship. You can come and worship and think, look at that amazing architecture. You can come as a tourist and think actually that’s a really beautiful service.”

What will you learn from this podcast?

  • Sandra shares an emotional recollection of starting a new role right at the start of the 2020 lockdown
  • The unique perspective of St. Paul’s as a place of worship and also a tourist attraction

To listen to the full podcast, search Skip The Queue on iTunes, Google Podcasts and Spotify to subscribe. You can find links to every episode and more at www.rubbercheese.com/podcast.

You can also read the full transcript below.

Leadership Optimized-Sandra Lynes Timbrell Blog large

The interview

Your host, Kelly Molson

Our guest, Sandra Lynes Timbrell


Kelly Molson: Sandra, it is so lovely to have you on the podcast today. Thank you for coming on.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Thanks for having me. I’m been a bit of a fan, so I’m quite chuffed to be here to be honest. 

Kelly Molson: Oh, I love it when fans come on the podcast. I have to say you look super fabulous today as well.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Oh, thank you very much.

Kelly Molson: As a fair, we’re going to start with our icebreaker questions. So I want to know because this has happened to me. Have you ever met anyone famous and lost your mind a tiny little bit?

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yes. There’s been a couple of people and there was an international incident with Barack Obama, which is a whole other podcast subject.

Kelly Molson: Oh.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: But I suppose Michael Palin was my big one. Because I think he’s amazing. I love Monty Python. And I had a bit of thing for him when he was younger. Obviously not now, he’s a bit older. And I met him a couple. I met him at this book launch and I queued up during a lunch break to go and see him. And just got there and then just stood there and he was saying, “Hello, how are you? Thanks for coming.”. And I just went, “Thanks”.

And then I met him again and he asked again how I was and just said something really stupid. I’m getting married. And he said, “Oh, that’s lovely. Thank you.”.

Kelly Molson: But that is lovely.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: It is, but then I saw him again at another event, I thought I can’t go anywhere near him because [inaudible 00:01:55].

Kelly Molson: He would be, oh look, there comes that crazy lady again. Let’s not go [crosstalk 00:02:01] next time.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Exactly.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I love that. Thank you for sharing.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: But I have to say working at the Globe, I met lots of famous people. And I have a really bad… I’m really good with faces and terrible with names. So I used to meet lots of really famous people and then just say, “Oh hi, how are you?” And then realise they were Gemma Artetan.

Kelly Molson: I’ve done this on a train before. Because I’m good with faces too. And I always think maybe I went to school with them or something.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: I know them from the past. No, just the tele. Amazing. Thank you. Okay. If you could travel back in time, what period would you go to and why?

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: That’s tough because I love history. I’d be like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, just doting all over the place. Wow, I don’t know. Okay, let’s think about this. I’d love to be around the Tudor Court. I think that would be really exciting. I’d love to go to the Restoration of Charles II. Because I always imagine that was like a carry-on film.

Because I think if you look at a picture of Charles II, he looks like St. James. So I almost imagine that after the austerity of the Puritan Commonwealth, there would suddenly be this almost Dorothy emerging into Oz and everyone was just having a really good time. So I think the Restoration Court would be exciting.

And I’ll tell you where else actually, my Nana used to talk about The Blitz. She had quite a good time. She was in her late teens, early ’20s. And obviously, it must have been difficult for her, but she had a good time going dancing with GIs and she was in Trafalgar Square on VE day. So something like that maybe, joining my Nana for a night out during the war.

Kelly Molson: Oh that’s nice, isn’t it? Love that.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: There you go.

Kelly Molson: Good. Thank you. Okay. And what is the worst job that you’ve ever had?

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Oh gosh. Without a doubt, it has to have been, it was way back when, when I was trying to get into museums, and I worked for an audio guide company who shall remain nameless. But I had to spend a week and a half stuffing envelopes for them. And it was proper 9:00 till 5:00, just stuffing envelopes.

They were just launching their audio guide for the Bilbao Museum in Spain. And it was just soulless because I just sat in this room and no one came to talk to me. And I just stuffed envelopes for a week and a half. And I thought, is this what museums are about?

Kelly Molson: Oh, yes. It’s not the greatest first experience, is it?

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Not brilliant, no.

Kelly Molson: Okay. Well, things have moved on quite well since then, shall we say? All right. What is your unpopular opinion? And then you can tell us all about your background.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Oh, my unpopular opinion. You’re going to get letters about this. I’m really sorry. I don’t understand why The Great British Bake Off is so popular.

Kelly Molson: I’m with you. No, it’s OK. I’m with you.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Oh, really?

Kelly Molson: Yes, it’s all right. Oh God, me neither.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Watch the complaints rolling in.

Kelly Molson: Oh, God. They’re going to come, aren’t they?

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: They are. It’s just, I don’t get watching people bake cakes. I’ve tried watching it. It just doesn’t make any sense. And then I don’t understand why people want to enter the competition to make these big elaborate cakes when you could just go to the cake shop and buy one.

Kelly Molson: I totally agree.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Anyone else who does. And I always feel I’m saying something really awful when I say I don’t like-

Kelly Molson: I do think it was better when it was first one. When it was a bit of a novelty and I did watch a few episodes then. But I still didn’t really… I didn’t love it. I didn’t get into it. I know people who have bake off parties and stuff.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: They’ll bake cakes, especially for bake off week. And I’m just…

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Well people say, oh, you know it’s whatever week this week. I was, I’m going to go to Marks & Spencer and I’m going to buy some ready made cakes and…

Kelly Molson: And I am all about convenience.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yes.

Kelly Molson: Time. And your valuable time that you need to spend on other things.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: And I’d just be stressed.

Kelly Molson: We’re going to get on Sandra.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: We are.

Kelly Molson: We’re going to get on. Well, this all started with a little rubber, didn’t it? Rubber collection? So here was my little…

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Pretty nice.

Kelly Molson: St. Paul’s Cathedral rainbow rubber. Look at that. Amazing. Now, this was from my 35-year-old rubber collection. And for our American people that are listening, I’m talking about erasers, novelty erasers.

But eight year old me used to have a big old collection. And every time I went to a different attraction, I would pick up a rubber. So we have one here from Fourty Hall in Enfield, which is my local place I used to go to, the National Gallery. And I just found all of these in my mum’s loft a couple of months ago. I decided I was going to get all of the people that could come on the podcast and the attractions. And you’re my first one, Sandra. I’m really pleased.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yay.

Kelly Molson: So tell us a little bit about your background?

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: So I did a Degree in Ancient History and Archeology because I thought I was going to be Indiana Jones and I was going to find treasure. And then I spent a lot of time in some very wet trenches just outside of Manchester and realised it probably wasn’t quite as glamorous as I thought it was going to be.

And I really wanted to go into curatorial. I didn’t really quite know what. And for various reasons I ended up, just after I finished my degree, volunteering at the Verulamium Museum in St. Albans. And I originally went to help the curatorial team. They were closing for renovations. So I originally to help the curatorial team to pack up the exhibitions and items.

But as time went on, I was there for a few weeks, and it gradually got, so could you help an education team? Could you help the front of house team? Could you help with the group book? All those things were happening. And I remember as the placement was coming to an end, I sat down with the Museum Director and I said, “You know what I’ve really enjoyed the most, is the variety”. And he said, “Ah, you’re an operations person”.

And this light bulb went off because I never knew. And I think that’s part of a bigger conversation. I never knew there was such a thing as operations. You get taught about the curatorial side, the conservation side, maybe the education side, but no one really talks about the day-to-day running, the operational stuff.

So I then went off and did a Master’s Degree in Heritage Management. And at the end of that was really fortunate, I got a job in English Heritage up at Kenwood House. And I stayed in English Heritage for seven years. I cut my teeth there. I had a really good time there. It was hard work, but it was fun work. And we were all learning and moving at the same pace.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: So, I was there for seven years, by the end of it I was Head of Visitor Operations for South London. So I had five beautiful historic properties and public parks and gardens. I moved on to a Heritage Lottery Fund Project Management. And then from there, I went off to the Museum of London as Deputy Head of Visitor of Operations. And that was just before London 2012.

So the whole lens, the focus of the world was on London. It was such a wonderful museum to be at. And again, they were just opening the Galleries of Modern London there. So we have this amazing new team, this amazing new gallery. We were looking at fresh ways to engage our visitors, looking at fresh commercial ideas and again, a really exciting time to be part of the museum. And that place will always hold a really special place in my heart.

And then moved on from there two Shakespeare’s Globe, where I set up the Visitor Experience Department. I went there as Head of Visitor Experience and seven years later left as Director. And the Globe had grown quite organically. It started as a theatre and someone thought we’d better have a box office.

And someone else thought, well, we’d better have a shop for people to buy things. And we should have some levies. Be very organic. And no one has ever really been the champion of the visitor. So I came along to knit all of those operational teams together.

And so I got the role at St. Paul’s and the idea was to leave the Globe on the 20th of March 2020 and had a nice week off, go to a couple of exhibitions, spend some time with friends and a little boy. And then start this fantastic new job at St. Paul’s on the 30th of March 2020.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Wow.

Kelly Molson: So, where do we start? Because that’s a pretty spectacular time to start a new job. And that must have been quite challenging just to say the very least.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Can you take us back to then, can you share with us what it was like for you? Because I can only imagine what you were thinking.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yeah, it was the best of times and the worst of times to quote “Tale of Two Cities”. As I was leaving there was this… I’ll go back a bit further, but there was this infamous now I think, meeting with the VE forum. I know you’ve done a podcast on the VE Forum before.

There was this infamous meeting at which a load of us were at Central London attractions and F came in and we’d all been watching the news. It must have been mid-late February and Bernard Donoghue came in, and there was this thing happening in China.

And he started talking about the impact that was beginning to have in new Europe and also on hotel bookings in the UK. And as he was talking and he said, the words, are paraphrased, but it was along the lines of this will have a bigger impact or as big an impact as the second world war had.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: And there was this palpable intake, audible intake of breath across the room. Because I think until that point no one had ever realised just what this was going to be. And at the Globe we talked about, we might have to stop a show or not have a show.

And I remember I went back, I went to St. Paul’s on my way back home. And I presented this to a couple of the team that I’d already met and said, look, this is what Bernard’s saying. And, okay, well, we’ll probably need to think about if we can’t do a service or if we have to close for a day or so. And I went back to the Globe and we were having the same conversation. Well, maybe it’ll be a couple of days that we might have to close for.

And then gradually, just as time went on and you just see these horrendous news reports and things creeping up, we started to have these bigger meetings. The senior leadership team meetings I was having just about financials, where we were, what the impact of this was going to be, how we were going to manage.

It was before things like furlough and all the grants that were there. It was this really stark reality that this was massive. Something was about to happen. And we’re all about to fall off the edge of the cliff. And no one knew if there was going to be a net there for us, no one knew what was going to happen next.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: And that last week I was meant to leave the Globe. I was meant to have the leave due on the Friday. I just remember from the Tuesday onwards people saying, I’m really sorry, I’m not coming in for the rest of the week, I was getting these emails.

Until by I think the Wednesday or the Thursday that I left, there were four of us in and I had this moment, even though I’d been there seven years and it was just, well, thanks very much, take your stuff and we’ll see you when we see you.

And I remember phoning St. Paul’s and if you know the geography, the Globe is just across the river from St. Paul’s. Phoning up and saying, can I bring some things across? And the response was, there’s no one there, we’ve all gone. We’ve closed. So I had that week where I think I had coronavirus, but I was very, very sick. I don’t know. But I couldn’t move out of my bed for the week.

And then I started on the 30th of March. And day one is usually here’s the photocopier, here’s your colleagues, here’s where to get a coffee. Day one was, we are going into a restructure. What do you want your department to look like? And I hadn’t spent any time with my team.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: I’d had one coffee with a couple of them. I knew nothing about the operations and yet I’m standing there or sitting there at my kitchen table of it, having to make decisions that are going to impact people’s lives, people’s livelihoods.

Kelly Molson: I know. I’m breathing out, because I feel quite anxious, even just hearing you say that. But I can’t imagine how… I can imagine how unbelievably stressful that situation would you’ve been. And how awful, you don’t know these people, you haven’t worked with them. How do you even start to look at that?

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: With difficulty and with a lot of trust. And I think the other thing just to throw into the mix, that my full-time job they then terminated my contract and gave me a contract for two days a week. So I was also looking at, I might not have a job by the end of this. And looking really coldly at what those… I was almost looking at it as a consultant in a way, that I’m not really part of this organisation. But I’m just going to have to look at this really objectively.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: And see what I think. Because otherwise, I was just… And it was almost a good thing that I wasn’t at the Globe and then getting tangled up in the emotion of that. And I don’t want this to sound cold, but it was almost better that I didn’t know people, because I was talking about job titles and job roles rather than people.

Kelly Molson: Yes.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Names. But having said that, it was really bloody tough and it was this huge weight, that I felt of responsibility about what I was doing and what I was shaping. But I had to put the trust in the team that were around me, who I have to say, have been and were absolutely brilliant. I didn’t get one person saying, what are you doing here? I didn’t get one person… Everyone was there supporting me and saying, if you need anything, this is my phone number, give me a ring, let’s talk it through.

So we lost 25% of the workforce, which was huge. But I had to trust that when my teams were telling me that I needed this amount of expertise to keep the Cathedral floor open, that’s what they needed. I do remember sitting in several meetings. I had this PDF map that I picked up when I was doing the recce for the role, next to me. Because we were going into the granular detail of where these people would be and how that would affect the experience, whatever that experience may be.

And they were talking north transit. I was, hang on a second, north, where’s that, north? And I’d look up, and the conversation moved on. I was thinking, I don’t know what they’re talking… I’d have to keep stopping and saying, where is that? What do you mean? So I had to trust that they were telling me the right things. And for them, they had to trust me. And there was a lot of patience. As I say a huge amount of patience for me, to pick those things up, which in an ideal world I would’ve done gradually over a period of time.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. I guess it’s such a difficult situation. Because like you said, I think the way that you approached it from a consultative perspective, I think that’s brilliant. That’s the only way that you could have done it, isn’t it? To try and take the emotion out of what was happening.

But I think that must have been really difficult for you as a leader, because you are in a position of leadership at that point and people are looking to you.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Regardless of how long you’ve been in that role, they’re looking for you to tell them what they need to do or what’s going to happen. And that must have been such a weight on your shoulders.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: It was a huge weight. And as I say, I was only there two days a week. So I chose Mondays and Thursdays because they were when the senior leadership team were meeting. So I’d be from 9:00 in the morning Monday back-to-back Zooms trying to get to know people, trying to work out what the impact of saying yes to this and no to that was. Trying to get under the skin of the finances, the operations.

And then I’d be off Tuesday, Wednesday, and I’d be looking after my little boy and doing all the other things. And then Thursday would come along and I’d have a million emails, and people, I’m really sorry we changed that decision and you weren’t part of that. And I’m really sorry you weren’t part of that.

So as a leader, I felt constantly on the back foot and I felt, I always want to have the answers or if I don’t have the answers, I want to say to my team, I’m going to find a way to give you the answers. I’m going to get back to you on that. And what was so difficult was not being able to do that. We were reacting, and it’s not just some rules, it was across the organisation. We were reacting constantly to other people’s decisions.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: And one of the things I had to say, and I’ve spoken to other people. And I know I’m not the only one who has said this. There was a certain point where Boris was doing those super helpful press conferences at 5:00 every day. And there was a certain point where we had to shut down the idea that Boris gave us all a call just before he went on the TV to say what he was going to talk about.

It was, we are getting this information at the same time as you at 5:00 at night when we are also exhausted from being on back-to-back Zoom calls all day. And then we are having to react to what we are being told. And in some instances it was, well, this will be happening in two weeks’ time. In other instances, this is happening tomorrow. So we then had to make very quick decisions off of the back of that.

And working so reactively, firefighting in a way, it’s so tough because you don’t have that stepping back, that evaluation, what worked well, what didn’t work well, how could we do it better next time? It’s just, we’re just going to have to go with this and keep going with this.

Kelly Molson: And it’s exhausting, isn’t it? And that reactive nature was like you say absolutely accurate for people because you all Zoomed out and then you’ll have to make really strategic decisions based on information that’s just been thrown at you that might suddenly come into act the next day. And so then those days get longer and longer and longer.

From all of that, looking back though, what do you think are your biggest learnings that you took away from the situation?

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: I think two. The first one was, to be honest. And the idea of honesty that I talked about, saying to the team I don’t have the answers. I don’t know. Making really clear that we were all… What’s the phrase that you’re all in the same boat and it might be… Well, we’re not, it’s the same storm, but different boats.

But the idea that we were all going through this in some way, shape or form together. And that there weren’t answers, there wasn’t a usual, this is our five year plan. And this is how we’re going to get there. It was just… It goes back to the idea of trust. But being honest, we were doing our best and we didn’t know, but we were trying to find out the answers or trying to do as much as we could to make it easier for the team.

Kelly Molson: Yeah.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: And I think the other thing I’ve learned, and I keep telling myself this, is to be kind to myself. Because I started the first day of my job on the 30th of March, a week into lockdown. And I had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t know. I wasn’t expecting to know. And I’ve been there, it’s coming up on two years. But I say to everybody, it feels like six months.

 This is the first time that I’ve seen any kind of normal cycle to the Cathedral. That I’ve been in any kind of normal planning meetings, that we’ve been talking about the next five years, as opposed to the next five minutes, the next five days.

So I sometimes feel a bit fraud. I sat in a meeting the other day and I said, I’m really sorry, I don’t know anything about this. And someone said you’ve been here two years. But this is the first time I’ve had this discussion. This is the first time this has ever been told to me as an operations manager. And it’s just reinforcing that.

And as I say, being kind to myself that I shouldn’t have expected that I would have all of the answers. Because we were all navigating this pandemic together. None of us had been through it before, so why should I know what to do?

Kelly Molson: Yeah. It’s really interesting. And I don’t think we’re all kind enough to ourselves.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: I don’t think so.

Kelly Molson: On a day-to-day basis anyway, let alone when there’s a global pandemic, how can we…

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Exactly.

Kelly Molson: I had a really similar chat to my team a little while ago about how me and my co-founder suddenly had to understand how to run a business in a completely different way. We’d never done… We had one team member that worked virtually for us or worked remotely for us.

But we suddenly had to understand how we were going to run our whole business completely differently than we had before, at a time where we weren’t sure if we were ever going to win any more business ever again, or if clients were going to stay with us. We just didn’t have a clue what was going on. But everybody was looking to us to tell them what was going to happen. And we were just, “I have no idea”.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: That’s the assumption, you were digital. You were going to come save the world, weren’t you?

Kelly Molson: Apparently so, yeah. And touch wood, things were okay and we got through it. But we still didn’t really have a clue. It was all just guesswork. And like you, we were reacting on information that we were hearing on the tele and going, okay, oh, we can do that now, then. Okay. Well we better do that. I’ll ring up HMRC. I’ll ring up the VAT office. We’ll just put everything on pause. Absolute chaos. But now we’re in a very, very different place. Incredible to think how far we’ve come.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: I think if anyone had said you’ll still be here in two years time, I think we all would have just thrown ourselves in the Thames, wouldn’t we? But hey, we are where we are in this.

Kelly Molson: Well, I’m just glad I get to go back into London and see the Thames. That’s exciting.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yay. Of course, yeah.

Kelly Molson: So I do want to talk to you about a very unique challenge that you have. And I think what’s really interesting, obviously we all know St. Paul’s, I’ve such fond memories of St. Paul’s. I think we spoke about this when we had a pre-interview chat. It’s one of my dad’s favourite buildings and it is absolutely stunning. I have such good memories of visiting it with him as a child and going up to the Whispering Gallery.

I can remember having a… My rubber is not the only thing that I have from St. Paul’s Cathedral. We had a beautiful puzzle. We used to do puzzles. That’s a lockdown thing, isn’t it? But it was of the dome of the Whispering Gallery, the beautiful pattern. A lot of people see it as a tourist attraction, which it is, but first and foremost, it’s a place of worship.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: And so I’m intrigued just to understand how you get that visitor experience right. For two audiences that are coming for very, very different reasons.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: One to worship, one to look at the architecture, for example.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: The sightseeing. Yeah. And it is a really fine balance that we have to strike. I think the thing that we have to think about, is I come from a very commercial angle about, if we keep the building open then we allow worship to happen. And that’s a really stark way of looking at things.

And I have some clerical colleagues who come from the other angle, which is this building is just here to worship. And we have to be very careful about what we do in order to raise the money. I think the first thing that we all sign up to is that we are respectful of other people’s opinions and other people’s beliefs and other people’s needs.

So there is a chapel that you can go into. So to come to worship, to come to pray, that will always be free at St. Paul’s. And there’s a chapel that you can come into and set aside for private prayer. And you just announce yourself and you can go straight through into there and you can pray. Or you can come along to one of the Eucharists or you can come along to one of the bigger services. And you are there for free. There is no assumption that you would pay any money.

However, what we do find is that worship and tourism aren’t mutually exclusive. And that’s something that the Dean and certainly the more pastoral colleagues I have, are really keen to point out, that you don’t simply have to just be a tourist. You don’t simply have to just be here to worship. You can come and worship and think, look at that amazing architecture. You can come as a tourist and think actually that’s a really beautiful service. Or I’d like to listen to the words that’s being said.

And as someone who isn’t particularly religious, when you step into the space, you can appreciate the spirituality and the mindfulness of the building. It is an absolutely beautiful building. And there is a sense of still and calm when you go through. I think it’s a lot in many churches I’ve been through, a sense of still and calm.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: That you don’t have to be there specifically to worship to appreciate that you are in a place that is absolutely stunning and absolutely beautiful. And I’ve seen some really amazing services. Some of the Christmas, we have the Consecration of Bishops. And they’re absolutely joyous. And it’s just amazing to see people just really enjoying being there and using the space, what it was intended for.

So the way that we look at things and the way that we market is that it’s about the building. Yes, it’s a place of faith, but it’s also a place that’s been at the heart of London, the heart of our nation for over 1000 years, not the same building. Building in that place. It’s been there for over 1000s of years. And so it’s part of our lives. It’s part of our collective memories of things like Charles and Diana’s weddings, or the Jubilee celebrations that we’ve got coming up.

So when we are looking to market the church, we talk about it being alive with stories, we talk about the hidden cathedral. So those places that you don’t usually get to see on the tourist trail, that actually might also appeal to people who are worshippers as well. But there is a challenge, as a working church we stop for Eucharist at 12:30 every day, we stop for prayers on the hour, every hour.

We have some big services, for example, the Consecration of the Bishops, which is not ticketed to the public, it’s ticketed to the Bishops who are being consecrated. So we have to be closed to the public. So we have those challenges of how to work around that. We can’t just simply say that we’re open.

The website has got some very complicated, but not at this time, messaging there. But actually again, that’s part of the beauty of it. Why are we closed? This is why we’re closed. This is what we’re doing. This is what we’re celebrating. So I find it’s a challenge, but it’s not as big a challenge I think, as you would expect.

Kelly Molson: Does it bring any advantages or disadvantages with that as well? I guess that’s really what we’ve spoken about in terms of the disadvantage of closing, and how can you explain why you’re closed for certain things.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: I think the advantages are learning about why it’s there. Learning about what St. Paul’s is. And you can get married there. People get married there, people have their children baptised there. So when people find that out, oh, that’s really interesting, how do I do that? So again, it’s just opening up and unlocking those stories that I talked about. Unlocking the building for people.

I suppose another challenge is that we can’t be… This is a nation’s church, we are the place where the Queen comes to worship. So what we can’t do is we can’t be provocative. We can’t be aggressively commercial. We have to respect that this ultimately is a church. This ultimately is a place of worship. But the understanding also is there that we need to be commercial in some way, shape or form. It cost eight million pounds to keep St. Paul’s Cathedral open.

Kelly Molson: Wow.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Every year.

Kelly Molson: Gosh.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: So we need to raise that money. So when I’m talking about driving visitor numbers up, when I’m talking about driving income, it’s not the detriment of the core values of what St. Paul’s Cathedral is, that value of faith comes first.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. And it’s like you say, it goes back to that. It’s a very fine line, isn’t it? To try and keep everybody happy and everyone considered in those circumstances. Look into the future. Because we’re all about future and positivity now. You’ve got the Platinum Jubilee Exhibition.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Opening the 25th of May.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: 25th of May, that is right. So it’s all about all of the Jubilee celebrations that we’ve had at St. Paul’s. So there are four of them, which are celebrating George III, Victoria, Edward, and the Queen herself, who will be having, it’s her fourth celebration.

And I was in a really exciting multi-agency Jubilee meeting the other day for the actual service. So that was lovely again, to be part of, seeing St. Paul’s opening up again and being part of these bigger services. But come along, it’s going to be great.

So as part of HRL funding, which was when we were in lockdown, I got an audience development plan and pull together. And what we found was before the lockdown, almost 90% of our audience were international tourists and the remainder were domestics, but the reason the domestic market weren’t coming were broadly because a bit like you, came with your dad when you were at school, you went up to the Whispering Gallery. What’s the reason for coming again?

So part of my engagement strategy is trying to put things into place, which encourage people to come back to St. Paul’s and think of it a bit more of a return visit. So we’ve got kids go free happening this half term, we’ve got the Jubilee Exhibition going in this year, which runs on the 25th of May all the way through, hopefully into about Christmas. And then we’re looking ahead to Wren 300 next year, which is going to be huge. That’s the 300 anniversary of Wren’s death.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: So again, trying to think of some events that we can do on the cathedral floor, we’ve got our Summer Lates Program, which I’m in talks with a brilliant, a company to do partnership with some events with us. And maybe it’s something a little bit more unexpected on the cathedral floor, but all bring it back to the idea of mindfulness about where we are. And we can’t be too provocative.

We can’t be aggressively commercial. But actually, let’s look at St. Paul’s in a different way. Let’s look at the architecture. Let’s take our inspiration from the mosaics, from all the other wonderful things that we have there.

So we are really looking forward to the Jubilee. It’s massive for us and everyone’s super-excited. Our guides doing guided tours, pulling those together. We’ve got our VA teams, are bringing some objects down to the cathedral floor for people to… Part of our handling collection. It’s really something we’re all pulling together for. I think after the past couple of years, this is just the joy that we need.

Kelly Molson: Oh, yeah. It feels like a big celebration.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yeah, it does.

Kelly Molson: It feels like it’s really well-timed, isn’t it? The Jubilee, and it happening. I feel it’s going to bring everyone back together again.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: It will.

Kelly Molson: I love the idea of the Lates. I’m very excited and intrigued to find out what’s happening there. But you are right, it’s been difficult, isn’t it? For attractions that are predominantly international tourists that come. That must have been really difficult for you. And I think it’s wonderful that you’ve now got this program where you are encouraging people to come back. I’m definitely going to come back and-

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Brilliant.

Kelly Molson: And come and see the exhibition. I’m really excited to come and see that. And I’m going to bring my daughter.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yay.

Kelly Molson: For the first time. It’ll be her first trip to London.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Really exciting.

Kelly Molson: Yeah. I just think it is one of those places that you do go to as a child and there needs to be that continuation of why you should come back. So very excited to see.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: We just need to… As I say, we’re obviously restricted with many… We don’t have an outside space really. We can’t just put exhibitions anywhere. We can’t be as reactive as some can. We do what we can.

Kelly Molson: And do it beautifully as well.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Oh, thank you.

Kelly Molson: So I always ask our guests about a book that they love.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Yeah.

Kelly Molson: Now it can be something that you love. It can be something that’s inspired you in your career. It can something that you love personally. What have you got to share with us today?

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: I found this really tough, because I read all the time. And so choosing one book, I can’t do that. So I came up with a couple and then I had to pair it down. So I’ve got the Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, which is absolutely brilliant. And then anything by David Mitchell. But I decided that the one I would tell people they had to read and if they could win it, they should, was Life after Life by Kate Atkinson.

Kelly Molson: Oh, okay. I have not read this book. No.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: It’s a story of a girl Ursula, who is born in 1910 and it’s the multitude of lives that she goes through. So every chapter she has a different life. And the first chapter she isn’t born and it goes all the way through, it goes through two world wars, where things happen to her or don’t happen to her.

And she begins to have this memory of what her life was. And she takes herself out of certain situations. And I just love it because it’s this idea of… It’s almost if you take that turn, that doesn’t happen, but something else happens. And Kate Atkinson writes absolutely beautifully. So it’s a really lovely book to read, just to think about, maybe if I’d opened that door I would’ve been over here, but here I am.

Kelly Molson: Oh, I like that. It’s got arching back a little bit to our little time-traveling question there at the beginning as well, isn’t it?

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: It is a bit, isn’t it? I told you.

Kelly Molson: A little trick to travel through history. Well, as ever listeners, if you want to win Sandra’s book, if you go over to our literature account and you retweet this podcast announcement with the words “I want Sandra’s book”, then you will be in with a chance of winning it.

It’s been so lovely to have you on today. Thank you for sharing what I can imagine. And I felt it while you were talking, a very emotional and very challenging time. And so I’m very grateful that you were open to sharing that with us today, but I’m really excited about what’s coming next with St. Paul’s. And I think that there’s lots of good things to be really, really positive about. And I’m looking forward to coming to see them.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Oh, looking forward to seeing you, it’s going to be an exciting summer. We saw some international tourists yesterday, so it’s all going to be okay.

Kelly Molson: They’re back.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: They’re back.

Kelly Molson: The world is open.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: It’s all right.

Kelly Molson: Brilliant. Thanks so much, Sandra.

Sandra Lynes Timbrell: Thanks so much, Kelly.


Do you know someone we should be talking to?

Do you know someone fascinating we should be talking to?

If so, email us at hello@rubbercheese.com – we’ll get back to you shortly.

Paul Wright.
Kelly Molson Managing Director

Host of the popular Skip the Queue Podcast, for people working in or working with visitor attractions, she regularly delivers workshops and presentations on the sector at various national conferences and universities including The Visitor Attractions Conference, ASVA and Anglia Ruskin University.

Read more about me

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