This is a tale of land, wind and water that started really when we embarked on the ferry from Harwich in England. The Unesco World Heritage Site of Kinderdijk is only about 50 kilometres from the Hook of Holland so it was an unmissable stop on our road trip through the so-called ‘Low Countries’, Belgium and the Netherlands.
From high up on the deck of the ferry to Holland the historic port of Harwich looks like a toy landscape on its promontory amid a huge sea and sky. Its many historic buildings reflect a past importance – as a trading port, as a naval base and as part of Britain’s sea defences.
Here, and again when I got to Kinderdijk (which is only an hour’s drive from Hook) I was reminded of Dutch landscape painters like Aelbert Cuyp (1620-1691). Cuyp’s typical Dutch river scenes and landscapes are notable for the use of glowing light and a famous example is The Windmills at Kinderdijk.
Nineteen windmills stride across the flat, reed and grass-covered landscape at Kinderdijk. They line waterways called polders. This land is the Alblasserwaard and it represents more than just a scenic picture worthy of a Dutch landscape master painter.
Behind the pretty scene is a history of struggle, of human ingenuity and backbreaking work that saved the land from floods and waterlogging for centuries. This is one of the first places in the Netherlands where windmills were used to pump water. So in some ways it is the birthplace of Dutch expertise in finding creative water management solutions. From low-lying, flood-prone peat land they created tenable farmland.
The system was refined over the centuries: sixteen of the mills were built in 1739 and 1740, and dykes and reservoirs were also built to protect the land.
There seem to be a number of theories surrounding the name Kinderdijk, including the dykes and water management systems being built using child labour. Or it could just have been because the dyke here is smaller than usual. Let’s hope so.
Today you can also see the modern mechanisms pumping water out of the polders at Kinderdijk and into the river above. The modern screw system can move the same volume of water as 300 of the old windmills could have done.
At the visitor centre you can arrange a boat tour (4 euros per person) and watch an instructive film about the windmills. The fellows running the boat tours were eager to share their knowledge about Kinderdijk also. Although I think he was over-egging things a bit when he kept repeating that if they didn’t properly manage the water and pump it up from the polders, they would all be drowning within a month!
There is one windmill retained in the state it was when the last milling family left it in the 50s. It is fascinating to get a glimpse of the hard life of the millers and to climb up into the mill to see the mechanism working.
But perhaps the most amazing thing I learnt when I visited Kinderdijk is that the mills are maintained today by volunteers. Many of them are inhabited by people who pay tens of thousands of euros each year to keep the windmills in good order.
I’m sure they think it is worth every euro to keep such a special place intact for future generations.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you visited Kinderdijk?