5 Things You Didn't Know About Winston Churchill

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Winston Churchill had one of the most immediately recognizable faces of the 20th century, and you probably know all about his triumphs as a statesman and orator. Let’s take a look at five things you may not know about him, including how his mom tried to bribe him to give up smoking.

1. He May Have Masterminded a UFO Cover-Up

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During World War II, a squadron of Royal Air Force bombers had what they believed was an encounter with an alien spacecraft during a flight. While flying along the British coast near Cumbria after a bombing raid, a crew claimed that a hovering metal disc had silently shadowed their plane’s movements, and they even snapped pictures of it.
When Churchill heard these reports, he sprang into action and ordered that the story be kept secret for at least 50 years. Churchill was understandably concerned about sparking a mass panic when World War II was already raging, and he further worried that spotting an alien would shake peoples’ religious beliefs at a time when they needed their faith to help deal with the war.

2. He Was an Honest Pedestrian

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Churchill made a classic traveling blunder during a 1931 visit to New York City. In a confused moment, he looked right instead of left before stepping onto Fifth Avenue without realizing that here in the States, our traffic moves on the opposite side of the road. Churchill stepped right in front of unemployed auto mechanic Mario Contasino and took a 30 mph thumping from Contasino’s car, which dragged him and then tossed him into the street.

Although Churchill bruised his chest, sprained a shoulder, and suffered cuts to the face, he quickly told police that it was his own bumbling that led to the accident and that Contasino hadn’t done anything wrong. In fact, he felt so bad about inconveniencing Contasino that he invited the driver to his hospital room for a visit. Churchill also took advantage of his wounds to secure a tipple during prohibition. He got his doctor to write him a note that read, ''This is to certify that the post-accident concussion of Hon. Winston S. Churchill necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times.''

Churchill even decided to have a bit of fun with the accident. He asked his buddy Frederick Lindemann, an Oxford physics professor, to calculate the force with which the car hit him. Lindemann responded that it was roughly equivalent to two point-blank charges of buckshot but joked that the charge was probably mitigated by the “thickness cushion surrounding skeleton and give of frame.”

3. He’s Torn Up the Pop Charts

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Churchill has one odd distinction on his resume: he’s placed two albums on the British pop charts after his death. In 1965, his posthumous release The Voice Of charted shortly after his death, and he scored another triumph last year with the release of Reach for the Skies. The album features some of Churchill’s most rousing speeches from World War II set to the music of the Central Band of the Royal Air Force. The new record debuted at number four on the British album charts.

4. He Won a Nobel Prize

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Maybe this one’s not so surprising, but the subject is. Churchill brought home a Nobel for literature. The Nobel committee considered Churchill off and on for years after World War II thanks to the strength of his historical writing, but they always had trouble pulling the trigger and actually awarding him the prize. (One of the problems was that Churchill’s main output was as a historian, an area that garnered little literary support. Worse still, the Nobel committee had previously deemed Churchill’s lone work of fiction, the 1899 novel Savrola, to be “without literary merit.)

By 1953, though, Churchill had finally built up enough support to nab the award over the likes of E.M. Forster and Hemingway. When Churchill received the prize, the committee praised him particularly for his six-volume history The Second World War and "for his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values"

5. His Mom Tried to Nix the Iconic Cigars

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Churchill often appeared in public with a cigar in his mouth, and the stogie habit started at an early age. When Churchill was just 15 his mother implored him to give up the habit, even writing in a letter, “If you knew how foolish & how silly you look doing it you would give it up, at least for a few years.” She didn’t just rely on rhetoric, though; she turned to every parent’s favorite weapon, bribery. If Churchill would give up smoking for six months, she’d get him a gun and a pony. He agreed to this deal.

Eventually, he went back to smoking the large cigars that are now named in his honor. Although many of the cigars Churchill smoked were specially made just for him and weren’t the part of any brand, he did occasionally puff on the commercial stuff. His favorites were Cuban Romeo y Julietas and Camachos. His other well-known vices were Johnny Walker Red scotch and vintage Hine brandy.

If there's someone you'd like to see profiled in a future edition of '5 Things You Didn't Know About...,' leave us a comment. You can read the previous installments here.

10,000 People Gathered at Stonehenge to Welcome the Summer Solstice

Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images
Finnbarr Webster, Getty Images

There are plenty of reasons to welcome the start of summer. Today, people visiting Stonehenge took that celebration to a whole new level.

The BBC reported that an estimated 10,000 people made the pilgrimage to the 5000-year-old site to partake in summer solstice festivities. "Stonehenge was built to align with the Sun, and to Neolithic people, the skies were arguably as important as the surrounding landscape," Susan Greaney, a senior historian at English Heritage, said in a statement. "At solstice we remember the changing daylight hours, but the changing seasons, the cycles of the Moon, and movements of the Sun are likely to have underpinned many practical spiritual aspects of Neolithic life."

These spiritual aspects are just one of the many fascinating facts about the summer solstice; the day is an extremely old calendar event recognized by ancient cultures across the globe. They include the Druids and other pagans, whose tradition of observing the solstice at Stonehenge has long been upheld by modern revelers.

Scientifically speaking, Stonehenge is an optimal viewing place for the solstice due to its structure. According to TIME, the site’s architects appeared to have kept both the summer and winter solstices in mind during its construction, as the positions of the stones are specifically tuned to complement the sky on both occasions.

The solstices were sacred to the pagans, whose modern-day followers continue to honor their rituals. Pagans in particular refer to the day as Litha, and mark it with activities such as meditation, fire rites, and outdoor yoga.

“What you’re celebrating on a mystical level is that you’re looking at light at its strongest," Frank Somers, a member of the Amesbury and Stonehenge Druids, said in 2014. "It represents things like the triumph of the king, the power of light over darkness, and just life—life at its fullest."

Those who were unable to make the journey can head over to the Stonehenge Skyscape project's website, where English Heritage’s interactive live feed fully captured the experience.

Tourists Are Picking Apart Britain's Oldest Tree

Paul Hermans, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The Fortingall Yew in the Fortingall churchyard in Perthshire, Scotland has seen a lot. Since it started growing at least 2000 years ago, it's been present for the Roman settlement of Scotland, the shift from paganism to Christianity, and the country's induction into the United Kingdom. But after standing for millennia, the ancient tree is facing its greatest threat yet. Tourists are removing twigs and branches from the tree to take home as souvenirs, and the tree is under so much stress that it's spontaneously changing sexes, Atlas Obscura reports.

Because of how the tree grows, it's hard to date the Fortingall Yew precisely. It comprises several separate trunks that have hollowed out over the years, making it easier for the tree to support itself in its old age. Based on historical measurements and 19th-century ring counts, the yew has been around for at least two millennia, but it could date back as far as 5000 years. That makes it the oldest tree in Britain and one of the oldest living things in Europe.

That impressive title means the tree gets a lot of visitors, not all of whom are concerned with extending its lifespan even longer. A stone and iron wall built in the Victorian era encloses the tree, but that hasn't stopped people from climbing over it to break off pieces or leave behind keepsakes like beads and ribbons.

As the abuse adds up, the tree has responded in concerning ways. It sprouted red berries this spring, a sign that the tree is transitioning to a different sex for the first time in its life. Yew trees are either male or female, and sex changes among the species are incredibly rare and misunderstood. Some botanists believe it's a reaction to stress. The change may be a survival mechanism intended to increase the specimen's chances of reproducing.

Scientists aren't sure why this particular yew, which was formerly male, sprouted berries on its upper branches, an exclusively female characteristic, but they've collected the berries to study them. The seeds from the berries will be preserved as part of a project to protect the genetic diversity of yew trees across the globe.

In the mean time, caretakers of the Fortingall Yew are imploring visitors to be respectful of the tree and keep their hands to themselves.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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