It would be tricky to write about a trip to the Netherlands without mentioning water. It’s everywhere. Only half the country reaches higher than one metre above sea level and much of it is several metres below. Rivers and canals seemed everywhere. We’d often follow the dyke roads, narrow lanes that ran along the side of canals that flowed unseen on the other side of the dyke. Usually edged with rumble strips that rattled your teeth loose when you moved over for oncoming traffic, it was disconcerting to think about the water that was above you as you drove along these roads.
The polders, those fertile areas of reclaimed land that lie at or below sea level, are kept dry by pumping water up to the rivers and canals. In times of old man worked with nature and pumping was taken care of by a network of windmills and the windmill is synonymous with the Netherlands. Nowhere is this better displayed than at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Kinderdijk, where nineteen easily accessible and immaculately preserved windmills line the banks of the canal.
When first arriving at Kinderdijk it is not the old, but the new that first greets you. Three giant Archimedes Screws located next to the car park pump water out of the polder and into the river above.
It is free to wander around and enjoy the windmills up close, but a ticket grants access to two of them and a short film of the site’s history. As the wind turns the giant sails, the cogs mesh and shafts turn in full view, creaking and groaning with every rotation.
Photographs of the harsh life operating the windmills adorn the walls while TV screens, out of place in this world of wood, play films explaining how it all works. Antique artefacts fill the rooms, giving a flavour of everyday life. Back outside and the waterwheel turns steadily, moving water up from one level to the next.
They were not without their limitations. Calm weather was not such a problem, it was during stormy weather where strong winds accompanied heavy rainfall that windmills showed their weakness as they could not operate in high winds for fear that they would be torn apart. This was when the risk of flooding was greatest.
Time eventually caught up with the windmills and the fickle age of wind was replaced by the more dependable, if less environmentally friendly, age of steam.
Not far away at Nijkerk a team of volunteers keep the Herzog Reijnout steam powered pumping station running. It is not required any more, a more modern facility nearby performs the pumping now, but occasionally they fire up the boilers and the giant waterwheels start to turn once more.
It’s an incredibly popular event, with the car park full to overflowing and the dyke road lined with parked cars. Local clubs use it as an excuse to gather, with a collection of tractors and the local motorcycle club attracting almost as much attention as the pumping station, but it is the steam engine that is star of the show, quietly turning the wheel as a faint plume of dark smoke wafts from the tall chimney.
As we travelled through the Netherlands we began to discover that, while campsites and motorhome stops were plentiful, many were closed now that the peak season was over. Although there were more than enough left open, we were discovering that they often closed to new guests quite early and time management is not really one of our strong points. We arrived at the marina ten minutes after the sign said it would be closed, the harbour master patiently waiting in the waterside bar for us to park up for the night. A busy marina, we were lulled to sleep by the gentle jingling and jangling of yacht mast rigging and the steady lapping of the water.