Queen of Glastonbury Festival Arabella Churchill

Looking out on Glastonbury Tor and Chalice Hill as the rooster crowed one bright morning, Arabella wrote me a note. “What a night that was! Thank God we were all OK. In retrospect, the whole shipwreck was a very positive experience for me. One of the deals I made that night was that if I survived I would be more positive and refuse to waste so much time on boring, negative emotions – and, so far it’s working. I feel very glad to be alive and very positive.” It was July 1999 and she was sending me her reflections about a sunset sail on a double hulled canoe, during one of our Hawaiian Juggling Festivals, that turned into a bit of a disaster.

Arabella was never a person who was easily intimidated by adversity. She came from English stock known to be tough and resilient. She was the favourite grandchild of the great Winston Churchill and spent precious times with him. She had a huge, indomitable personality, knew her own mind, and chose a very different path from the dictates of convention and her family background. She ‘ploughed her own furrow’ and was proud of it.

In 1954 she appeared on the cover of Life Magazine as part of a feature on possible future spouses for Prince Charles. Arabella went to Fritham School for Girls, where she was Head Girl. In 1967 she was ‘Debutante of the Year, ‘ appeared in Vogue,  met the Kennedys and Martin Luther King and was romantically linked with Crown Prince (now King) Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden. She then worked for the British leprosy Relief Association, and traveled to Tanzania and Zambia following which she gave talks to groups all over England. She later had a brief career with London Television but those big city, bright lights were not for her.  

In 1971 she dropped out of high society, co-founded the legendary Glastonbury Festival, lived in squat and protested the Vietnam War. Chased through London by a surprised press, she left for rural Somerset, where she embraced the alternative culture of the time. In 1987 she met her second husband Haggis McLeod, a brilliant juggler and one of Britain’s best performers and teachers, and they had a daughter Jessica. They moved to a simple house in Glastonbury and became regular visitors to our annual jugglers festival in Hawaii.

‘Bella’ was a non-juggler but easily made friends with everyone and told me that her favourite festival activity was sailing on the traditionally built Hawaiian canoes. One evening she set out for a sunset cruise on Kiko’s 28 foot, double–hulled canoe with captain Roy Carvallo and six others. Back on shore the remaining festival goers prepared for a grand Polynesian luau. Around 5:45pm the wind direction very suddenly changed from onshore to offshore. It was the dreaded ‘mumuku’ named by the Hawaiians for a sudden blast of wind that roars from the Big Island mountains down to the coast. The canoe crew lowered the sail and attempted to paddle back to shore. The wind strength increased rapidly knocking festival tents down while the paddlers continued trying, unsuccessfully, to reach land and safety. The rest of us observed intensely from the shore feeling absolutely helpless and in a state of deep suspense with anxiety increasing every minute.

Clive Cheetham set out in his single-hull canoe on a rescue attempt, with Ed and Kosta, two experienced long distance paddlers, plus Henrik, Haggis and Robin. They reached the struggling vessel and dropped off Henrik, Robin and Kosta to help the tiring crew with paddling. While the high winds rose to exceed 50 mph, both crews paddled their hardest but were unable to make any headway back to shore. 

As the default ‘Pooh Bah’ I called 911 and the Fire Rescue team came down to the beach park to investigate the situation. With darkness falling, Candy Dawn, a 28-foot catamaran captained by Christopher Skelly and Susan Garrett, motored out, picked up Ed, Clive and Haggis and began searching for the double hull boat. The wind was so horrendous it ripped the dinghy off the catamaran and blew it away. It also broke the tow lines holding Clive’s single hull outrigger canoe and that too was blown away and simply disappeared.  

The Coast Guard called me from Honolulu explaining they were monitoring the situation closely. Their only boat on the island was in Hilo, too far away to help, and their local helicopter was on Oahu for regular maintenance. A 26′ county Fire Department Fire Rescue boat was eventually launched and began to search in the dark for our missing boaters. 

Around this time the combination of wind and waves caused the hatches of the double-hull canoe to fill with water, submerging the boat. The weight of the waterlogged vessel and the rolling swell weakened and broke the rope lashings that held it together. Everyone was in the water desperately hanging on to parts of the canoe that continually moved under and around each other. Arabella organised the sharing of jokes and songs and distracted anxiety by talking about meals they planned to eat when back on shore. This way she was miraculously able to keep the morale of the shipwrecked mariners incredibly high. Throughout the wild night she insisted they call out each persons name to keep one another awake, attentive and thinking positively. It saved a life when a young boy drifted away but was noticed missing and Capt. Roy swam out to pull him back to the wreckage.

Meanwhile, the Candy Dawn gave up the search, and was headed into shore to drop off it’s passengers, when it promptly got entangled in an old fishing net, leaving it dead in the water. Captain Skelly cut loose the net eventually but, with a fouled engine, he decided to hove to and wait out the winds and stay at sea for the night. This became just one of several moments of good fortune because it kept the catamaran and shipwrecked canoe in the same basic vicinity. During the night members of the canoe spotted the lights of the catermaran but were unable to signal them. Eventually the Fire Department reported that it was calling off the search till morning because of the severely high winds and waves. 

At about midnight Henrik decided to swim back ashore, to his worried wife, equipped with one undersized fin and a hatch cover. He soon ditched the useless hatch cover and battled with the currents and winds all night. He remembers feeling like he was nearing land when the Coast Guard helicopter picked him up. It was daylight and he’d been swimming non stop for seven hours. They delivered him to Kona Community Hospital where he was treated for hypothermia and kept overnight for observation. His very fortunate rescue gave great relief to us all especially Jody – his eight months pregnant wife.

Early that morning, shortly after the search resumed, the catamaran was relocated about five miles from shore with the double-hull canoe nearby. The eight shipwrecked boaters and three rescuers were all taken safely aboard the catamaran. Arabella imagined that Haggis had drowned so it gave her a great shock to see him – she wondered if she was halucinating and described it as “a marine version of a knight on a white charger!”   The USS Frederick, a Navy landing craft that had been diverted to the area to help with the search transferred the boaters to their ship and took them ashore. The next day both submerged canoes were located and towed back to land.  An anonymous angel from the festival offered to pay for all repairs. We were all witnesses to several miracles that day.

When Arabella returned home the local paper rang her asking for an interview.  She said she’d rather not as it was quite personal but because the paper raised money for her charity- Children’s World and sponsored her Children’s Festival – she fired off a fairly reasonable low-key piece. Once it came out there was a sudden flurry of national newspaper interest.  She told me there was a small article in the Daily Mirror and then a full-page story in the Daily Mail headlined “My Shipwreck Nightmare in a Sea of Sharks!” Arabella called it ‘terribly embarrassing’! 

Bella continued working with the Glastonbury Festival, which started as a small free event then grew to become the most successful music and arts festival in Europe. Not only do the best bands play there each year, but it has become far more than just a rock festival. In 1979, Arabella set up the Children’s Area and also the Theatre and Circus Fields which she organised, staging more than a thousand performances and workshops over the Festival weekend for its 150,000 customers. I volunteered to work with her for the 1999 and 2002 events and observed she was an amazing, dynamic and decisive administrator commanding loyalty and admiration from everyone. She showed great attention to detail, always wrote personally to every single performer and had an uncanny ability to discover entirely new, cutting-edge acts. It was all very far from politics or royalty but her work was valued by everyone who knew her. “I’m immensely proud of my grandfather, and I hope he would be proud of me, but … I was no good at being a Churchill,” she said in a newspaper interview, “When I was young people never saw me for me and it doesn’t do a lot for your confidence.”

Sir Winston Churchill’s grand-daughter, Arabella Churchill, preparing meels in her squatters’ restaurant in Bristol Gardens, Maida Vale.

Arabella had started Children’s World International in 1979, taking play equipment and basic things like educational materials to the children of Kosovo and Albania, and then to post-tsunami Sri Lanka on an old doubledecker London bus. She also worked in Thailand and Banda Aceh, Indonesia. She organised morale-boosting get-togethers and workshops for children and their parents to focus on fun and games rather than the ordeals they faced.

Arabella later embraced Tibetan Buddhism through the teachings of Sogyal Rinpoche, author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. She sadly died 2007 at the age of 58 with pancreatic cancer. Her obituary read, “Always intensely concerned for the underdog, she worked tirelessly at her Glastonbury-based Children’s World charity to help children of all abilities, but focused, in particular, on those with special needs. She pioneered the annual Glastonbury children’s festival, bringing fun theatre acts to young and old audiences alike”.

Knowing that she was dying, Arabella wrote to friends saying, “Not really too worried about the actual dying bit, luckily – and please don’t you be worried or sad either. Better this way for the soul than being run over by a big, red bus in a temper, completely unprepared!” Her final days were spent at home in Glastonbury in a calm and peaceful atmosphere in harmony with her beliefs, surrounded by close friends and family. I’m certain everyone would agree that old Winston would have been proud of this most renegade member of his family. R.I.P. Arabella.

Post Script: In 2010 Michael Eavis, paying tribute after her death, said “Her energy, vitality and great sense of morality and social responsibility have given her a place in our festival history second to none.” He constructed a new bridge, dedicated to Arabella’s memory, at the Glastonbury Festival site.

Bella’s Bridge


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Published by Graham Ellis

As a child of the '60's with a wanderlust spirit I just followed my dreams and opportunities as they arose. My journey took me to some of the brightest and darkest places imaginable. I met amazing people on the way, some were famous and some are infamous. Some are just great friends with stories that blended with mine as we traveled together on land, on the sea and in the sky. We all share the renegade spirit !

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