The art of winter photography or…

… How I become an 11 year old at the first sign of a snowflake.

I love snow. I love the change it brings, making the familiar look new and magical. I love looking out of the window and seeing a white landscape, perhaps with one set of tyre tracks. Even better are the tiny trident footprints of birds and the bigger paw prints of foxes, all of which are common here when it snows.

On Friday, it didn’t snow. I was a little disappointed but I knew where the snow was. So after taking Rufus for his daily stroll (on a very cold Cefn Bryn) I set off for the Brecon Beacons. I ended up at the foot of Pen y Fan, at Pont ar Daf. I had no intention of climbing the mountain this time but I enjoyed an hour’s wandering around snapping the waterfalls and surrounding white hills. It wasn’t very surprising to see people setting off for the top wearing little more than jeans and a sweatshirt. I even saw one chap in a suit and smart shoes, although he was just pacing about in the slush and didn’t head off on the path upwards. Shoertlay after I left, I got caught in two heavy and windy snow showers, which would have soaked and chilled the walkers I’d seen setting off.

On Saturday, I headed up to Carreg Goch, the mountain above Craig y Nos. Here, despite the proximity of Dan y Ogof, I had the mountain to myself. I was heading for Saeth Maen, a small stone row, which I thought would be very photogenic in the snow. With no paths to follow and only a vague memory of the last time I’d been there, it was more of an adventure as I struggled through deep snow, which had drifted in hollows and against the reeds and grasses. I eventually got there and it was worth every slip and slide. The visibility was excellent despite it being overcast, and it wasn’t too cold. The silence was broken only by the gentle trickle of a small waterfall in the distance.

On Sunday, it snowed here and Rufus and I had a warm and cosy day inside.

Yesterday, I headed off once more to find the snow north of Craig y Nos. This time I wasn’t interested in walking and took all my camera gear instead. The weather was beautiful – clear and deep blue skies and crisp white snow. But unfortunately for me, there was no where to park. Every lay by and parking spot apart from one was under 8″ of snow. I even saw a 4×4 struggling in one lay by. I drove as far as Defynnog and although the landscape was stunning, I couldn’t stop anywhere to take photos. It was the classic fisherman’s ‘one that got away’. I finally managed to stop where the road passes above Crai reservoir. Although the car park was covered in compacted snow, I knew I could deal with that as long as I didn’t get stuck in slush. I spent about an hour walking down towards the reservoir along the main road, hopping quickly onto the side every time a car or lorry appeared in the distance. The snow here was nearly knee deep and I was soon soaked from the knee down. But it was worth it as the scenery and landscape was wonderful.

As I drove southwards, back home, the snow faded from the hills until I neared the motorway, where there was no sign of any of the wintery conditions I’d encountered earlier.

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Catching the Sunrise

Yesterday, I decided that I’d climb Pen y Fan to take some photos as the sun was rising, The weather forecast was good, I was in the right mood.

The Plan:

Get up at 5am, make a snack breakfast, walk Rufus (as he would be house sitting), set off at around 5.45 top get to the car park for 6.45. This would give me a good hour to get to the ridge where I would be able to set up and wait for the first golden rays of sunlight to hit the southern faces of Pen y Fan and Corn Du. Then, a quick stroll to the summit of Pen y Fan itself before heading back to the car and the journey home. I expected to be back starting 2nd breakfast by 10.30am.

The Reality:

I woke up at 4am and dozed fitfully until 4.45 when I finally gave up and got up. There was much huffing and puffing from Rufus, who had clearly found the most comfortable, warm and cosy spot ever just before I disturbed him. Breakfast was thrown together (scones, of course) and Rufus had some gourmet concoction which included chicken. Then we went out for a short walk around the block, sharing the pavement with two foxes who didn’t seem too worried by our presence. I often take Rufus out before work and I love the bits of our walk where there are no streetlights, as the stars seem to shine much more brightly. Orion was just sinking in the west as we walked. Rufus decided to check every blade of grass for evidence of other dogs so by the time we got back to the house, it was 5.50am. I could already see the plan starting to go wrong.

I managed to set of just after 6am and the streets were clear of traffic as I drove through Swansea and off to the north. Of course, once I left the dual carriageway I hit traffic in the form of a slow lorry. The temperature was below freezing and the road narrow so I couldn’t overtake. I managed to get to the car park at about 7am.

It wasn’t quite dark, so I didn’t need a torch. I set off up the path and with my goal of beating the sunrise, I set a good pace for the first 10 minutes. I hadn’t done any preparation for this walk and the last time I climbed Pen y Fan was in August and I quickly realised the pace I set wasn’t the right pace. A short stop, a rethink and a couple of photos later, I was on my way at a much more realistic speed. As the light levels increased, the view to Fan Fawr and the west was beautiful, with a gorgeous pre-dawn light bathing the hills. But ahead, I could just make out mist covering Corn Du. As I got further up the hill, the mist came further down to meet me. With 10 minutes to go before the sunrise, I entered the clouds. By the time I got the the ridge where I had planned to see the first golden rays of sunlight, all I could see was 10m of the path either side of me. But I had made it there with 5 minutes to spare.

I decided that to have any chance of seeing any golden rays, I’d need to be on Pen y Fan itself so without waiting, I set off. As I walked along the side of Corn Du I noticed the path ahead of me light up as if someone had switched on a street light. The ground here is red sandstone so even though I couldn’t see the actual sunrise, the red dawn light was making the path shine. I looked over to my right and there was a large patch of orange red mist. No sun, though.

On Pen y Fan, I had the summit to myself. There was a thick white frost on everything, making the stone path very slippery. After a couple of  photos, I went to take a drink. As I took my back pack off, the wind picked up until within a minute it was blowing hard enough that I had to brace myself to stop being blown over. The wind was sharp and icy and I decided not to hang around on the top of the clouds to clear. I caught a glimpse of blue sky as the clouds sped over  the summit but I was already heading back down again.

I quickly dropped down below the clouds and the wind dropped again so that it became pleasant walking. By now, the light on the hills opposite was exactly as I’d hoped I would see on the summit and I stopped frequently to take photos. I stopped to chat with a guy climbing up to work on the paths and he asked me about the conditions on the summit. He said he wasn’t going there himself but he wanted to advise people who were going up as more often than not they were unprepared for the reality of a mountain in winter. I chatted to another guy who was planning on picking up rubbish on the way down. Then I reached the relative warmth car park and a few minutes later, I was heading home.

I managed to get the cooked breakfast going by 10.15 and I was sat down eating it by 10.45.

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The Story of the Shower

Rufus had a shower this morning after we got home from our walk. He will tell you it was unnecessary, a cruel and unusual punishment, a compromise to his natural oils keeping his fur clean and an assault on his canine rights. This is the true story of the walk that led to his shower. You decide.

We set off for Mynydd y Gwair to the north of Morriston after a leisurely breakfast. My plan was to walk across the common and on to Mynydd Garn Fach. Along the way there would be marsh, a river to splash and paddle in and a climb up to wonderful views down to the Loughor Estuary. But as we walked along the road and off onto the common, Rufus was reluctant to go too far from the tarmac, stopping and turning around to face the car. I thought his leg might be playing up a bit and so after a few minutes, I let him have his way and we headed back to the car. Or more accurately, towards the car. We passed the car with no sign that Rufus wanted to stop and instead, he took the turning that led down the forestry track to the remains of Bryn Llefrith plantation.

I’ve noticed recently that Rufus is more discerning with his choice of routes and rather than accept my guidance every time, he occasionally lets me know which way he wants to go. It usually manifests itself as a sudden, complete halt followed by a sullen, teenager-like plod while he looks in the direction he wants to go and stops dramatically to sniff at a non-existent scent. This was one of those occasions.

He trotted off down the track at his usual pace, with no sign of any leg issues and no non-existent scents to smell. We haven’t been in to Bryn Llefrith for ages and although they haven’t cut any more tress down, it has become overgrown with reeds and bushes. Many of the newly planted trees are starting to sprout but it will take ages for the forest to grow again.

We turned to follow the northern boundary fence of the forest, which is where the footpath goes. There was some mud and a lot of marshy ground but there always is at this point. Unfortunately it didn’t dry up and steadily got worse. Ahead, Rufus was splashing through the water and I could tell by the sound of his paws that it was deep. Then the sound turned to squelching and for the next 10 minutes, we squished and slurped through ever thickening mud. And then it got really muddy!

The plantation slopes down from Mynydd y Gwair and the water ultimately runs into the Upper Lliw reservoir. When the plantation was complete, the trees would manage the water and control the saturation of the ground. Now there are only a few trees left, there is no control. We were walking around the perimeter at the lowest point and eventually, there was little point in trying to avoid the mud as it was everywhere. I think at this point, as we were alongside the shore of the reservoir, Rufus knew that there was a shower ahead. He did his best to dodge the deepest pools but to no avail. The further we went, the muddier we got.

My plan was to climb back up to the higher track and hopefully dodge the mudfest but the track was as muddy as the path. The only difference was that we could see further ahead at all the pools and puddles that lay between us and the dry part of the track far ahead. Rufus vaulted a couple of tree trunks that had fallen across our route, kicking up drops of mud that went everywhere. I plodded along, my boots taking on the colour of the ground as they soaked up the gloop. Eventually, we reached drier, high ground.

Back in the house Rufus headed straight for the back garden. He knew what was coming and tried to dodge the inevitable. But reluctantly, he accepted his fate and made his way slowly up the stairs tot he bathroom. With much grunting and sighing, he had his shower. The blanket that Rufus sleeps on in the car went straight into the washing machine along with my trousers and my boots spent an hour or so in the sun where the worst of the mud dried and I was able to scrape it off.

Had I left the mud on Rufus, he would be caked in a layer that would prevent him from moving properly. The photos of the shower while I’m washing him are proof enough. I rest my case.

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Welsh clouds have hard centres.

“Welsh clouds have hard centres” is a quote by an unknown flying instructor to an unknown trainee fighter pilot during World War 2. When you look at the number of aircraft crash sites from WW2 and since, it’s clearly good advice.

I’ve written before about the sites I’ve visited around the Brecon Beacons and the Black Mountain. All of them are situated in bleak, lonely places usually on high ground and inevitably on slopes steep or slight.  Some of these crews were new, completing their operational training on the type of aircraft they would fly into battle. Others were re-training, having survived a tour of operations over enemy territory. A few were returning from operations and got lost in bad weather, or succumbed to battle damage.

Yesterday, I decided to visit a new site for me. Vickers Wellington MF509 was on a training flight from RAF Stratford  on 20 November 1944. The crew of 6 Canadians were carrying out a night navigation exercise when a fault developed with one of the engines. The plane began to descend over the Black Mountain and hit the ground on the western slope of Carreg Goch, a couple of miles west of Craig y Nos. Sadly, the crew were all killed on impact. The engines were salvaged but the rest of the wreckage was left in situ.

I had read about this site several years ago and had always planned on visiting. But the site was in the middle of a difficult limestone landscape and not on any route that I regularly took during training for treks. So I never got round to making the trip.

The initial climb from the main road was short and steep but I quickly gained height and left the trees and farmland behind. I passed a limestone quarry and finally reached the first over many limestone pavements overlooking Glyntawe and Craig y Nos. Now the fun started as I tried to find the best route to the crash site. The main path from here would take me north of where I wanted to go so I decided on some cross country walking, taking a more direct but much less obvious route. I took advantage of sheep trails and open rock to climb quickly onto Castell y Geifr.

This area is full of sink holes and is frequently used by pot-holers exploring the vast cave system of which Dan yr Ogof is a part. I passed several deep holes lined with scaffolding poles and blocked for safety reasons. The going underfoot was tough, with broken limestone hidden just beneath the surface of heather and grass threatening to turn and ankle. I took advantage of exposed flat limestone slabs to make better progress but this meant my route twisted and turned and I had to stop frequently to check the map for progress and to keep heading n the right direction.

As I headed west, off to my right was a large area of peat bog known as Waun Fignen Felen. In prehistoric times, this was a shallow lake surrounded by trees which slowly silted up, providing a habitat for wildlife. 8000 years ago, the climate was warmer and upland areas of Wales were more habitable than now. Traces of human habitation from the Mesolithic, Neolithic and Bronze ages have been found on the margins of the bog, in the form of flint tools and flakes and a small drilled stone bead. Ancient people hunted here, and stayed in the area while the hunting was good.

I continued on, following a particularly sinuous sheep track through thick purple heather and onto the top of Carreg Goch. Slightly sloping slabs of limestone made the final few yards much easier and from the description of the crash site, I expected to find the wreckage on the reverse side. But it wasn’t there. I checked the map and decided that I was a little too north of the co-ordinates and turned south. There was no path, just lots of broken and weathered rocks ready to trip me up. I scrambled and wobbled from rock to rock until I reached a little stream bed, now dried up. I followed that for a while and climbed up onto a rock slab to see where I was. There, on the western slope, was a great pile of silver-grey metal and beside it flew a Canadian flag.

The Vickers Wellington bomber was designed by Barnes Wallace, the genius behind the Dambusters bouncing bomb. In the early years of the war, aluminium to make aeroplanes was scarce and Wallace produced a two engined bomber with a metal frame covered in fabric to minimise the use of aluminium. The airframe had a distinctive geodesic form, a series of struts and bars forming triangles. It was very strong and proved capable of taking a lot of damage without losing its structural strength.

At the crash site, a large amount of the wreckage had been gathered into one place. The largest piece was instantly recognisable as a part of the inner wing. A lot of the metal had been burnt in the fire that followed the crash and had melted out of shape but the wing retained it’s distinctive form. I could see the undercarriage legs and a couple of pieces of armour plating, which had rusted to a deep orange. Down the slope, what appeared to be a long section of part of the fuselage lay in the rocks and around about, other parts of the plane were scattered.

There were a few others at the site when I got there. I got talking to one who said he’d first come to the site 35 years ago and he remembered a large wheel, complete with tyre, lying just down the hill. We went a little way down to see if we could find it. All we saw were more scattered fragments and a short section of metal tubing which could have been from the landing gear. I knew the engines had been removed by the RAF shortly after the crash.

After the others had gone, I spent a few minutes taking in the atmosphere. It was a lovely summers day but I know what these hills can be like on cold, wet and misty winters morning. This crash happened at night it terrible conditions for flying. The crew probably never knew what happened.

I love being in the hills. I love the sense of open space, the remoteness and the spectacular beauty all around. But little parts of our countryside hold sad secrets that clash with this beauty.

The crew:

  • Sgt C. Hamel
  • Sgt J.R.R. Villeneuve
  • F/O W.J. Allison
  • Sgt J.P.E. Burke
  • Sgt J.A.E. Groulx
  • Sgt J.L.U. Du Sablon

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Addicted to waterfalls

I could hear the sighs from the back seat as we drove up the Swansea Valley and along the narrow lane that follows the Tawe almost to it’s source beneath the Black Mountain. Rufus loves a walk on the hills. He’s not so keen when he sees me with tripod and camera as it means long periods of waiting around while I take ‘another’ photo of some waterfall.

He’s only a dog, you may think. Yes, but he’s a dog who knows me so well now that he will do all in his power to prevent me from taking photos using a tripod. Including placing himself in front of the camera in exactly the right place to spoil a careful composition. You think I’m joking. I’ve included two photos here of Rufus making his displeasure known by standing in shot or staring at me. And bear in mind that the waterfall photo, in which he has invaded the bottom right corner, was a 20 second exposure. He remained there, in one spot , for 20 seconds.

The waterfalls we visited today are on the side of the Cerrig Duon valley, above the little stone circle that dominates the lower valley. They are easy enough to get to, once you cross the river over slime covered rocks. It’s a short but steep pull by the side of the gully that the water has worn into the limestone. The hardest part is navigating the steep side down to get to the waterfall itself.

Once there, the waterfalls are usually spectacular and today was no different. Not too much water so that there was definition in the way the water fell over the rocks. The main difficulty in getting a decent image is mastering the high contrast between the sunlit part and the shaded part. At this time of year, with the sun low in the sky, it’s harder still. Today, I made several exposures of each composition, varying the shutter speed each time to give me some files I could blend together to create a tone mapped final image back home.

And all the while, a hairy black Spaniel bounced and splashed and yapped and weaved between the legs of the tripod. I threw sticks for him, I suggested he went off sniffing for dead things in the sunlight grass. But no, he just wanted to hurry me along. And eventually, inevitably, he won. We left the shaded gully and emerged into the bright winter sunshine. The ground was still frozen and rock hard and there was white frost in places. Where water had formed puddles on the surface of boggy patches, it was ice this morning.

Rufus is good at following paths and he made his way down to the river while I was still faffing about, watching red kits wheeling about above the ridge behind us. By the time I had reached the river bank, he was on the opposite side of the water, watching me to see if I would slip and fall into the water. I disappointed him on that point, and we slowly made our way back along the river to the car.

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Above the clouds

The plan today was to head out to the hills. Fan Brecheiniog was my goal and I decided that as Rufus had been looking and feeling fit recently, I’d take him along too. It was a beautiful, cloudless morning as we set off and for most of the journey. But, typically, as we reached the little car park at the start of the path, cloud had descended and it looked like a grim and grey walk lay ahead. Visibility was down to a few tens of yards as we set off and I was fully prepared to turn back if it didn’t show any signs of clearing.

It was wet underfoot and we squelched our way along. There was no wind and it wasn’t cold under the insulating layer of cloud. We made good progress and soon reached the river, and crossed it to reach the start of the main slope up to Llyn y Fan Fawr. I’ve walked this route many times before and several times in thick mist, like it was today. I’m confident in being able to find the lake but I usually end up taking a roundabout route if the visibility is poor. Today was no exception; I felt we’d veered off to the south as we climbed the slope. In the past, I’ve missed the lake complete by going too far south and almost bumped into the steep side of Fan Hir. So today, I veered back to the north a little.

In the silence, I could hear the faint sound of a helicopter which quickly got louder until it was clear that it was hovering over Fan Brecheiniog. It made several passes before finally heading off again. I didn’t see it but the idea that it could fly close to the mountain made me hope that as we climbed the mist would clear.

Eventually, I reached the edge of a steep slope where I wasn’t expecting one. Mist blocked the view down the slope but I had an idea we had gone too far south again, so we turned north and followed a clear path. Then I saw Rufus heading down the slope! Before I could stop him, he stopped at the lake edge, which I only noticed by the ripples he made in the water. I had been walking along the lakeside because the mist had made it look like a void. We were no more than 10 feet above the water. Now I knew where we were, I headed back to the path that led to the top of Fan Brecheiniog. In all this mist, I had only been about 20 yards out.

At the end of the lake, I stopped to talk to a guy who had been camping and was just getting ready to go. We chatted for quite a while and he told me he’d seen several people climbing Fan Brecheiniog during the night. Some shift workers had gone up and come down in time to start their morning shift. He’d heard the helicopter too, and had caught a glimpse of it when the mist cleared a little. He thought it was the Coastguard looking for a day walker that hadn’t returned. All the time Rufus wandered about enjoying the opportunity to explore but we were getting cold while we weren’t walking so we said goodbye and headed off to the start of the staircase up to the top.

Rufus seemed fine and keen to go so I decided we would make the effort. We could always turn back at any time. As we climbed slowly up the path, I felt as if the mist was thinning a little but the visibility was still poor. Then, as we started on the final pull to the top, I spotted blue sky above and within seconds, we had burst out of the mist layer and we were looking down on the tops of the clouds.

If you’ve ever flown you’ll know that feeling of being above the clouds in perpetual sunlight. It was a wonderful feeling; all the better for us having made our own way here rather than by plane! The sun was strong but so was the wind on the top of the hill and it got much colder very quickly. But the 360 degree views were stunning. To the north and east, there was nothing but cloud below us. To the south, a hazy mist made the hills leading to the coast fade into the distance. To the west, the views were clear across the Black Mountain and beyond. I stopped to talk to one walker there and we tried to identify all the hilltops we could see.

To the east, Pen y Fan and Corn Du poked their heads just above the clouds and it felt as if you could swim in the cloud between them. We walked on to the cairn at Foel Fawr as we neared the cairn at the end of the ridge, cloud was being blown up the side of the hill and over the path. Small patches of snow remained on the top and they had frozen overnight. We crunched our way through and finally got to the cairn. It was such a different day to the one we had set out in. From a black and white world to one full of colour within an hour, and it did so much to lift my spirits after a long, damp slog through the mud and marsh below.

After a rest and some photos, we reluctantly turned around to make our way back to the car. As I type, there is much snoring coming from a tired hound.

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Mynydd Garn Fach

Sheep everywhere. Sleeping sheep, eating sheep, staring sheep (they’re the worst because they stare as if they know something we don’t). Some run away, some stand where they are and pee. Others (usually the same ones that stare) will approach us.

We left the car at the entrance to the Brynllefrith plantation (now more like the Brynllefrith tree since they chopped most of the forest down) and started off across Mynydd y Gwair. Despite recent rain, the mainly hot and dry weather had turned the normally marshy and unpleasant moorland into a more enjoyable terrain. It was easy to avoid they persistently lingering patches of mud.

The moor looked like a sheep plantation. Everywhere there were little blobs of white with hints of red, blue and green where paint had been applied to signify ownership. Some of them bleated but most of them had their heads down and were chomping away on the grass, oblivious to our passing. Rufus has long since lost interest in sheep and I wasn’t worried that he’d go off chasing them. My only concern was that we’d walk into a distracted sheep, which would panic, so as we got close to the preoccupied ones, I clapped my hands to announce our presence.

Rufus took this to be a sign that he was due a biscuit and would stare longingly at me. Of course Rufus takes everything to be a sign that he is due a biscuit. A cough, me taking a photo, a leaf falling in the woods several miles away. All of these definitively indicate that a snack is imminent.

The last few times we’ve been here I’ve been heading for the river to get some waterfall photos but today I wanted to see how far we could go beyond the river, up onto Mynydd Garn Fach. The last time we were here it was just after my mate had died and I found a spoon on the walk. I ought to explain why that was significant.

When I was in school with Simon, we created ‘spoonhenge’, a circle of dessert spoons. It took a few weeks of sneaking spoons out of the school canteen and was carefully hidden in the long grass that we knew wasn’t likely to be cut.

Fast forward to earlier this year, just after Simon’s funeral. I was out on Mynydd y Gwair with Rufus and we were off any normal paths. Imagine my surprise to find a dessert spoon exactly where you wouldn’t expect to find one. I took it as a sign. I’m not superstitious as a rule, but this was too much of a co-incidence. I picked it up and used it as foreground interest for some of my photos. In the end, we got to the Bronze Age cairn on the top of Mynydd Garn Fach and I thought it would be fitting to place the spoon in the cairn. Which I did.

Today, I decided that if Rufus was feeling up to it, we’d head up to the cairn. I needn’t have worried about my canine companion, as he was jogging all over the place and was showing no signs of tiredness. So we set off around the coal workings and up to the summit of the hill. The cairn was surrounded by sheep, of course. Some sleeping, some eating and some staring. But they cleared off for us and we spent a few minutes at the cairn, where I found the spoon I’d placed under the stones was still there.

Although losing Simon was sad I have plenty of found memories, most of which bring a smile to my face. I remember when we were starting the first band off, spending evenings in our local pub making plans for world domination. But the smile comes from recalling one evening when we’d had a disagreement in the pub. It wasn’t enough for one of us to storm out but we couldn’t let the argument go. It continued as we walked back to his house from the pub and sort of came to a conclusion outside in the street. Loudly. I don’t remember what we were arguing about but I think both of us would have agreed that if we felt strongly enough about something, it was right to argue.

After I’d replaced the spoon, Rufus and I turned around to make our way through the indifferent sheep back down the hill to the river, where stones were thrown and paddling was had and there was some very strange barking (I reminded Rufus that he was a spaniel not a terrier as some of the barking was distinctly ‘yappy’). Then we set off for the remains of the forest and the car.

On the way I started to collect some rubbish as part of the #2minutelitterpick and #2minutebeachclean I’ve been taking part in. Basically, you spend 2 minutes picking litter up when you’re out. It’s simple, straight forward and makes a difference. Today I managed to collect a lot of tin cans and plastic drinks bottles. They’re all recyclable and it’s such a shame that people can’t be bothered to take their rubbish home with them.

The irony was that we passed the remains of a car that had been dumped in the marshy ground near the forest. It’s been there for more than a year now and it is slowly disintegrating, with bits all over the place. It makes for an interesting photographic subject, but I’d rather it not be there.

Back at the car, Rufus wasn’t ready to go home. I was pleased to see he was still keen on walking around as because of his habit of slowing down when we near the house or car it can be difficult to tell when he’s genuinely tired and when it’s just an act because he doesn’t want to go home.

It turned out we’d walked 3.6 miles in just over two hours.

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