David Cogswell | April 08, 2015 1:00 PM ET
Meeting Celia Sandys, Winston Churchill’s Granddaughter
It hasn’t really soaked in yet, and perhaps never will. I can hardly believe that I actually sat in a room and had a conversation with Winston Churchill’s granddaughter. It’s as close as I could get to meeting Churchill himself, and something akin to having a conversation with Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain.
Celia Sandys (pronounced “Sands”) was a traveling companion of Winston Churchill. She traveled with him often to the south of France where he liked to paint, a practice he had taken up in 1915, and according to Ms. Sandys, one of the favorite activities of his entire life.
Her first trip with him, she told me, was on Aristotle Onassis’ yacht Christina when she was 16 years old in 1959. They sailed out of Monte Carlo around the boot of Italy and among the Greek Islands and on to Istanbul while the famous romance between Onassis and Maria Callas ignited. The guest list, she said, was like something out of an Agatha Christie novel.
Onassis and Callas had brought their respective spouses on the cruise, but as time progressed, the affair between the shipping magnate and the diva gathered steam and young Celia observed with the fascination that might have been expected from any 16-year old girl. By the end of the voyage, both marriages were over.
Days Spent with Grandpapa
Celia and her siblings and cousins loved being around her grandfather, doing the kinds of simple things children do with their grandparents, like feeding animals, of which the Churchill estate had many.
“He liked pigs,” she said. “He said, ‘Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. But pigs treat us like equals.’”
PHOTO: One of few photos of Churchill and his granddaughter. (courtesy Celia Sandys)
As the children loved spending time with their warm, loving and funny grandpapa, he enjoyed the fact that they took him for granted, didn’t ask questions about politics and just loved doing simple things with him.
At some point, however, it began to dawn on her that he was not just like every other person’s grandfather, “that he was something very special.
“I observed that people behaved differently with him,” she said. “When he was there, everything centered around him. No one was interested in us. That’s why there are few photographs of me and my grandfather.”
She loved accompanying him to France on his painting outings where she had him all to herself.
She was with him in 1962 at Monte Carlo when he fell and broke his hip at age 88. At that age, his survival was by no means assured. He told his private secretary, “I want to die in England. Will you promise that will happen?” The secretary promised, but told Celia he was not sure he could keep the promise.
Then-Prime Minister Harold MacMillan sent an RAF VC10 to pick up Churchill and he made it home. He lived another 18 months, and he and Celia had a final trip to the south of France.
She was at his bedside when he died.
Celia Sandys has written five books about Churchill, both from her personal experience and from historical research with access to his personal letters and papers.
Tauck Creating Bridges
My opportunity to meet Celia Sandys was set up by Tauck, the industry-leading Connecticut-based tour operator that has always exhibited a failure to observe the limits accepted by almost everyone else.
As much as anything else, Tauck’s mission is making the impossible possible. So under that rubric, meeting personally with a legendary figure such as the granddaughter and traveling companion of the great Winston Churchill is not just something you daydream about. It can really happen.
Tauck made it happen for me, as it makes it possible for many others who are able to meet with Ms. Sandys during trips to England with Tauck. To dream the impossible dream and then go on and live it -- that’s the business of Tauck and there are countless examples of them doing it with thousands of clients on thousands of trips and events. This is just one, and a head-spinning one for me.
Tauck provides the opportunity to meet Celia Sandys to the guests on some of its trips to England. This is a premium example of cultural immersion. Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, the ancestral home of the Churchill family.
He was part of the traditional aristocracy of England, a world away from my life experience. How could I ever hope to make a connection with that world, beyond watching “Downton Abbey”? And yet, through Tauck, the ever-inventive engineer of experience, I was able to span that gap and have this encounter with Churchill’s granddaughter. That is certainly a kind of magic.
For Me It’s Personal
I can’t begin to describe the monumental scale of Winston Churchill from my point of view. He cast a long shadow over my life. My mother’s family lived in Southampton, England, and experienced the Battle of Britain, with the seemingly endless bombings of Hitler’s Luftwaffe that left swaths of her city in ruins on practically a daily basis.
She and her family listened to the broadcasts of the Prime Minister, who was undoubtedy the savior of England during its most horrifying existential moment. There is no getting around the fact that Churchill was the one man who made England’s resistance to a Nazi takeover possible.
As it was, England held on by what seemed to be a thread at times. Without his leadership, his confidence, his experience, his determination, his vision, his eloquence, his humor and his unfaltering adoration of England, it seems highly unlikely that Britain could have survived.
My father wound up in Southampton in preparation for the Invasion of Normandy, where he participated at Omaha Beach. That’s how he met my mother and eventually married her and brought her to the U.S., later to be followed by her parents.
In my grandparents’ house there was a smiling portrait of Winnie on the wall in a prominent place, and he was held in great reverence. They had a stein that was molded into the shape of his face and his image popped up in various places around the house.
The six volumes of Churchill’s “The Second World War” series were on my grandparents living room bookcase. We had the series at my home as well as well as many other Churchill books, including a volume that showed his remarkably sensitive and well-executed paintings.
My Yankee father was not an anglophile, but there was one thing the American and British sides of my family agreed on. My father too adored Churchill. He played me recordings of his speeches, moved with awe and emotion as he heard them.
Churchill was the ultimate hero of my family. He seemed like a being of another order, someone who existed in a different timespace dimension. The possibility of any kind of direct contact with him was of course curtailed after his death in 1965. But even to be with someone who knew him intimately, who was a close, flesh-and-blood relative, seemed almost as remote a possibility as spending an afternoon with Shakespeare.
For me, just to be in her presence, to see this person as a real-life person in the flesh, to observe her manner, to hear what she had to say was a transcendental experience. And somehow I wanted to be able to express my personal appreciation and that of my family to Celia for what her grandfather did for us.
Working with Tauck
On some Tauck tours of England, she addesses and then mingles with the guests.
“We have a special evening on tour after the Normandy Beaches,” said Celia. “I don’t take questions, I go to every table. I speak quite a bit.”
Sandys has nothing but admiration and respect for the Tauck organization.
“I very much enjoy working with Tauck,” she said. “I can appreciate what they are doing. I’ve been taking tours of my own in my grandfather’s footsteps and I know how difficult it is to organize.”
She is impressed with the guests, and above all with their loyalty. “Some of them have taken 40 or more of the trips,” she said. “It’s a very nice feeling. They are very high quality.”
And she recognizes the importance of travel to the cause of peace in a world in which modern communications and transportation have brought all the diverse countries and cultures into close proximity with one another.
“People need to get to understand each other,” she said. “And it’s important to go beyond the art gallery and meet the people."
This is what a tour operator can do. It’s not just transportation and accommodation and sightseeing and all the similar terms that show up in tour brochures. When all those basic components have been put together competently, and then the tour operator heads into the higher levels and finds ways to turn those itineraries and agendas into formulas for transcendental experience, then you have the kinds of truly life-changing experiences we are all seeking.
So hats off to Tauck for having the vision to see such opportunities, the follow-through to make them happen and for its part in enhancing lives and through all those individual experiences in making a better, richer and more harmonious world for all of us.
And special thanks to Celia Sandys for sharing with me what she embodies.
More by David Cogswell
Get Travel Deals and Travel News
Latest Travel News
Cruise Line & Cruise Ship
Features & Advice
Airlines & Airports
Destination & Tourism
Cruise Line & Cruise Ship
Airlines & Airports