Friends United

Friends United

7th September 2019

Kate Sims and Hanna Sorrell are more than just good friends. They are business partners, co-founders of the hugely successful Wells Angels WI and also part of the TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells team. Eileen Leahy finds out more about this dynamic duo

If you’ve ever moved to a new place to live then chances are it’s probably taken you a good while to get to know people and establish friendships. This was certainly true for Kate Sims, who hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota, when she moved to Tunbridge Wells after meeting her British husband while living in Boston.

“My husband has family in Tunbridge Wells and we moved here in 2012 with every intention of moving to London ASAP,” she says. “When I first visited, I was like, ‘Tunbridge what?!’ But almost eight years later, I still haven’t moved to London and still don’t know what a ‘Tunbridge’ is!

“I was only 24 when I moved here and struggled finding younger friends with similar interests to mine like food, wine and design. But as I’ve got older, I’ve seen more of my peer group move here to settle down and, more often than not, to start families, which has resulted in some really wonderful friendships.”

Special bond

One of those special bonds is with Hanna Sorrell, who also relocated to Tunbridge Wells a few years ago. At the time she and her husband Mike did a number of pop-up dinner clubs around town and the inaugural one just happened to be at the popular coffee shop Perk & Pearl, which was somewhere Kate enjoyed hanging out before it started trading solely online. A keen foodie, she saw Hanna and Mike’s pop-up advertised and decided to go along…

Toasting success: (left to right) Hanna Sorrell, hairstylist Becky Histed, make-up artist Jessica Marie and Kate Sims at Hotel du Vin

“The food was delicious and at the end of the night, I pulled Hanna aside to tell her that we were going to be friends. The next day, I invited her on a friend date. Luckily she said yes and the rest is history!”

Since their serendipitous meeting the pair have gone on to co-found the hugely successful Wells Angels Women’s Institute group and work on community projects such as the TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells group, a non-profit making organisation which aims to share and spread ideas and help shape future communities courtesy of short but powerful talks on a number of topics. Kate is also passionate about wine and long-time readers of SOmagazine may well remember her Bottle Bitches column, but more on that later…

'I spend a lot of time at the Hotel du Vin. We take a lot of meetings there, my book club meets there, and I’m always happy to while away a few hours in their bar'

After both freelancing for a number of years Hannah and Kate decided to start their own company: a boutique marketing agency called ‘bgsd’ in 2017. “It specialises in creating eye-catching branding and hardworking websites for artists, creative entrepreneurs and badass independent businesses,” says Kate.

“Our company name stands for ‘bitches get stuff done’. When Hanna and I were both independent freelancers and collaborating on community projects like the WI and TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells, we’d bounce ideas off each other and ask one another for advice. One of our common quandaries came when writing emails that were assertive without coming off as abrasive, and we’d regularly ask one another, ‘does this sound too bitchy?’ Before hitting ‘send’ on something our answer was always quoting Amy Poehler and Tina Fey’s SNL [Saturday Night Live] sketch from 2008, ‘No, bitches get stuff done’.

“I think that many women in business find themselves trying to manage social niceties as well as a long to-do list, and sometimes that diminishes our own confidence in written communication. When communicating with a genuine confidence in our expertise and talent, women are sometimes labelled as being a bitch, rather than an assertive business person. At bgsd, we channel our inner Hillary Clinton and embrace the ‘bitch’ while getting stuff done.”

Like anyone with a lot on their plate there is the constant struggle to juggle things and Kate actively admits that it has taken her years to find a healthy balance. “With bgsd, we actively work with eight to 12 clients at a time, and when you add the WI and TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells to the mix, it can start to feel like a lot. While I love meeting new people and bringing groups together around shared experiences and big ideas, I also know I’m very susceptible to burn-out and have to be vigilant about blocking out a few evenings a week to stay in and relax without any real-world obligations.”

Having lived here in the UK for a good few years, is there anything Kate misses about Minneapolis? “The only thing I miss about the US – other than my friends and family – are the property prices and proper tortilla chips. I’ll take Brexit over Trump, sausage rolls over hot dogs, and the NHS over America’s garbage healthcare system any day.” Looks like America’s loss is Tunbridge Wells’ gain…

On Wells Angels WI

“I didn’t even know what a WI was when Hanna asked me to come along to a local Women’s Institute meeting in 2015. The group we visited had been going for decades and though it wasn’t necessarily reflective of our values, it was immediately evident how important this regular gathering was to all the women who were members.

“When Hanna suggested we start our own WI group, focusing on modern issues and catering to a younger crowd, I was immediately in. Our friend Jules Mortimore also helped in the planning, and I still remember the three of us sitting on the terrace at The Beacon saying: ‘You know, it would be great if we could get 40 of our friends interested in this.’ We had over 300 women come to our first meeting and we now have 120 members. It’s absolutely bonkers! I feel so fortunate to be a part of such a wonderful group of women. I hope it’s still going when we’re in our twilight years!

“In terms of why the Wells Angels is hugely oversubscribed, I think it’s because we’re all looking for genuine connection, and something like the WI has that in spades if you want to get stuck in and attend meetings and sub-groups. Our WI is committed to bringing in thought-provoking speakers and creating interesting experiences for our members, and I know that appeals to a lot of women. In an ideal world, we’d be able to let everyone in our group, but it’s sadly impossible due to space (we’re literally at maximum capacity) and the strain it would put on our hard-working volunteer committee.

“I’d love to see more WIs pop up in Tunbridge Wells. The women in our town are definitely keen to get involved, and knowing how many women we have on our mailing list, TW could easily support another two or three groups. If you’re interested in starting a new WI, please do reach out and I’d be more than happy to give you some pointers.”

On TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells

Kate’s involvement with TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells began during the 2016 event. “I was asked to help out at the Tunbridge Wells event by live-tweeting the day’s talks,” explains Kate. “After that, I was brought on board to help organise the TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells Women event in October 2016, after which I promptly got glandular fever (remember what I said about burn-out?).

“I stepped away for a year and then rejoined the committee for the January 2019 event as Head of Marketing. I’m now Co-Chair and again taking on the role of Head of Marketing for 2020. Keep an eye out because things are going to start rolling out soon!

“One of my favourite things about TEDxRoyalTunbridgeWells is that no matter who you talk to after an event, they’ll have a different favourite and take-away from the day. Not every talk will be everyone’s cup of tea, and honestly, that’s okay! It would be impossible to create a line-up of speakers who universally spoke to everyone.

“Instead, we try to curate a really interesting mix of topics and hope everyone walks away having learned something about the world, about themselves, and about how they want to shape the future.”

Why join a WI?

  • It provides an open space where women can come and just be themselves, not a wife or mother or teacher or small business owner.
  • Women can make life-long friendships and are prompted to discuss topics they might normally shy away from, like sex therapy or what roles men play in supporting gender equality
  • It pushes members out of our comfort zones to try new things, whether it’s macramé or collecting donations for our women’s shelter
  • It makes living in Tunbridge Wells a richer experience, and for people like me who aren’t from here, it can be a really valuable way to find and nurture community

Kate’s Grape Expectations

I love enthusing about things I’m passionate about, so writing about food and wine was something I’ve always done in one way or another – whether emphatically sharing a dining experience in an email to a friend, or writing about it alongside a snapshot on Instagram. Specifically, when it came to wine, writing about it was a way for me to dive deeper and learn about different varieties and regions. The more I learn about wine, the more I enjoy drinking it and trying new things. I feel really fortunate to have the ability to invest time and money into such a delicious and interesting hobby and I don’t have any intention of stopping any time soon.

As long-time readers of SO may remember, I co-wrote the Bottle Bitches column in the magazine. The three of us – Caro (the French one), Angela (the smarty-sommelier) and myself (loudmouth American) – came up with the idea one night after a Wells Angels WI Wine Club sub-group meeting. As part of the set-up, we would all try the same wine and then share some information about the bottle as well as our individual thoughts about the wine. It was a great deal of fun and really showed the diversity of different palates. At its core, wine is meant to be enjoyed, and I think we did a really good job of keeping that enjoyment at the heart of what we did.

Through Bottle Bitches, I made a number of friends in the wine industry and have taken on some design and branding work by building those relationships, which is so fun. I also use my social media and personal website to share about some of the wine that I’m enjoying at the moment – and I am always more than happy to have a glass of something lovely with a new or old friend…

I love travelling to different wine regions and experiencing how wine plays a role in different cultures. I was just in Provence for a few weeks and made friends with a local chef, who said that the way to survive a heat wave is to have “a cherry a day, a litre of water, and a sip of rosé”. I loved that, and so enjoyed drinking with the locals and trying the food and wine that they think is best. To me, these experiences are always the highlights of the trip.

I’m really into German Pinot Noir (or, as they call it, Spätburgunder), dry Riesling and Chablis at the moment, but what I drink varies a great deal based on the season. These three varieties are perfect chilled on warm summer days, and Riesling pairs extraordinarily well with the spicy Mexican-inspired food I like to make during the summer months.

My favourite – and most cost effective – way of drinking wine locally is to do it at home. I love going to Secret Cellar (especially their warehouse in Wadhurst, because it has parking, which is important when carrying wine home) and picking out some interesting wines and then sharing them with friends over dinner at home. That said, I’d love to see more wine bars open up in Tunbridge Wells! And rumour has it that my wish may soon be granted…

Why I love Tunbridge Wells: Kate Sims

Where’s your favourite place to shop?

I tend to wear the same things for years and years so I buy sustainably made basics almost exclusively from Everlane when I’m in the States (but they do ship to the UK) and then sprinkle in statement pieces from Bod & Ted or The Changing Room every now and again. 

When it comes to the home, I’m an absolute sucker for Le Petit Jardin in Chapel Place, and I have also got quite a few great pieces from Mink Interiors on The Pantiles over the years.

I try to buy all my books through our local Waterstones because I believe that books are magic and that having a well-stocked local bookshop is incredibly important to a town’s well-being. I’m absolutely obsessed with Neal’s Yard and can’t believe it’s closing in the autumn! I literally cried a little bit when I found out. When it comes to food, I’m fully committed to Fullers, Locality and The Best Health Food Shop, but I also love driving out to local farm stands to have a nose through their produce and see what interesting bits I can find.

And to eat out?

This might be controversial but I think the best place to get a consistently good meal, good service and good vibe in Tunbridge Wells is Fuggles (pictured). Doug [White] does a great job with their selection of dishes, their cheese board is A++, and the vibe is never weird. I like a healthy brunch or lunch at The Plant Base or The Black Dog, or popping out for a casual pizza at Estro. If I have friends in town, I take them to The Beacon for the view or The Mount Edgcumbe for a country-but-not-too-country pub experience.

And for coffee and/or cocktails?

I have my one and only cup of coffee each day at home. It’s an important part of my morning routine and I almost never skip it. If I’m meeting someone for coffee, I’ll usually go to Fine Grind or Fuggles and have a kombucha, knowing that whoever I’m with is guaranteed a good coffee. For drinks, I spend a lot of time at the Hotel du Vin – we take a lot of meetings there, my book club meets there, and I’m always happy to while away a few hours in their bar, especially in the winter when you can sit fire-side. I also find my way into The Common Rooms, Fuggles and The George more often than I should, but I have no regrets.

Where’s the best place to go locally in order to get away from it all?

Despite all the things I’m a part of, I’m actually a total hermit and love to camp out in my flat for days on end. When I start to go stir crazy, I’ll go on a run or long walk along country footpaths near home. Sometimes you just need to lay in a field five minutes from your front door to recharge your batteries and regain the confidence to face the world.

What would improve your experience of living in Tunbridge Wells?

I’d love to see more people traversing the town on foot or by bike, and I’d like to see more people supporting local restaurants and shops instead of ordering online or driving out to the industrial estate. I’m by no means perfect (I literally ordered a turkey baster off Amazon this morning) but I do think it’s really important to vote with our pounds and spend our money in the brick-and-mortar shops we want to have available to us long term.

Art Direction: Lee Smith | Photography: Craig Matthews | Location: Hotel du Vin Tunbridge Wells

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