Scribe    Weekly




Film & DVD Archive  


Music Archive




Features Archive

Food & Drink 

Food & Drink Archive

Wijke's Weather   

Weather Specials   






Link To Us  



Scribe Weekly Radio   

Dedications for Scribe Weekly Radio   

Write for Scribe Weekly



New land

BY Wijke Ruiter


Hand a Dutchman a spade and he’ll start building dikes and digging canals. He simply can’t help it: its in the blood. Take a quick look at a 17th century map of Holland and compare it to the modern one you know: the big patchwork of land, wetlands, swamps, lakes and estuaries is reshaped into fixed constructed polders: New Land all over Holland. The Dutch had to: two-thirds of the country is below sea level. History tells of a long sequence of flash floods and disaster; no one can live with that!  An endless fight against the sea and a untameable urge to extract land from it: the winner takes it all.

Why would you want to live in a place like that?

Since many, many centuries people have lived on the spot in Europe that we now call the Netherlands. It was a nameless swamp then, but there was plenty of fish and small wild to hunt. The first people built little villages on the higher area’s along the rivers. The land was fruitful, obviously  fertile enough to counterbalance the continuous threat of flash floods which regularly harassed the tide-woods along the North sea-coast.

Later the early Dutch started to built high hills to live on; and at the start of the era these area’s where the most densely populated and the prosperous of all Western Europe. However the Romans thought the early Dutch were barbarians, they surely were astonished by what they found:  the first signs of  dikes, hills and canals; just to keep the land (and the feet!) dry.

 Growth, cry for freedom and windmills

Ask someone about Holland and at least he’ll mention Amsterdam, tulips, wooden shoes and windmills. These mills were invented in the early Middle Ages and developed further to drive paddle-wheels.
During the Middle Ages the Dutch villages and towns started to grow quickly. The wealth of the country and the political freedom attracted many people from all over Europe. Refugees found a warm welcome.
It would be beyond the scope of this article to explain why freedom was valued – in contrast to the other, feudal, societies of Europe. It was certainly not a social systems of church, noblemen, peasants and villains.
Simply stated: every lord had to be glad there were people around to help him getting the manor dry and till the land. These farmers were absolutely not his slaves; they got paid for the products of their farming, and if they wanted to move to another manor, they just could go.
The eternal menacing water was a shared enemy of all; everyone – lords and farmers – could be caught by it; a strong feeling of equality was the principle of the community.

Around that time the first polders grew; people started to build dikes around pieces of reclaimed land to keep it dry. This land mainly existed of peat-land; and the peat was extracted from it. But the land lowers when it’s drying and the new polders were under constant threat from flood rain and seeping water. The windmills were of great importance; they paddled the water out of the polders with their huge wheels.

Slowly the typical Dutch polder-landscape developed, with thousands of windmills along dikes to keep the lowlands dry.

The big innovation was a windmill with a revolving top. It could turn in any wind direction; the possibility to dry little lakes was achievable and with an ingenious system of two or three mills in a row  you could dry deeper lakes. Those former lakes; which are dry land now, are called “droogmakerijen”. The most famous one is the Beemster. A famous achievement at the time; famous engineers from Britain and Italy came over to have a look. Its one of the Unesco’s world inheritance sites.   

The sinister, eternal voice of violent water

In the 17th century Holland was one of the most powerful countries in the world. And Amsterdam was a very influential city. But the city of Amsterdam, with its surrounding grounds, was threatened by a huge lake on one side and a huge Inner sea; the Zuiderzee, on the other. Plans were made to reclaim these waters too. But the windmills didn’t provide enough power for such a huge undertaking.
After the invention of the steam engine the Haarlemmermeer, (18.000 acres) was reclaimed. Schiphol airport is situated at former sea bottom; 6 metres below sea level. (Every pilot will know!).
But the biggest problem of them all was the Zuiderzee. A huge estuary that regularly flooded surrounding land; particularly with a storm for the northwest and spring tide terror haunted the villages and towns around this sea. For centuries Dutch engineers have been trying to figure out how to restrain this water wolf.  The eldest preserved drawings and plans for reclamation of the Zuiderzee are from the 17th century. Unfortunately the engineers met insurmountable difficulties; building dikes in such an enormous surface and in that torrential water seemed impossible.

De Zuiderzee-polders

It would take two centuries before new plans were made. The engineer was Cornelis Lely (1854 – 1929). His name will always go with the huge project of the reclamation of the Zuiderzee.
The very first thing to do was close down the connection of the Zuiderzee with the North sea. A impressive dike between Noord-Holland and Friesland, had to be built for that.
Then a big lake of 350.000 hectare would remain. Furthermore there should be land extracted from this lake in four successive stages; the most fruitful land was reclaimed and finely a water surface of 120.000 ha would persist; growing slowly fresh due to the rain and the rivers that flow into this lake;  the IJsselmeer would be born.

De Afsluitdijk

De Afsluitdijk (literally: closing dike) was the most important projects of them all. It had to succeed and it did, however the first world war almost spoiled the game.  In that time many engineers were convinced it wasn’t possible; but the advantage was clear; the Dutch vulnerable coast-line would be considerably shortened.

The building of this dike, mainly by hand, was started in 1920; at first with a smaller part of 8 miles, and finished finally in 1932. The dike is 20 miles long, at the waterline 300 feet wide and 30 feet high (above sea level). 
The dike has two sluices at both sides; which connect the IJsselmeer with the Waddenzee, a part of the North Sea.

The construction of the Afsluitdijk cost 120 million gilders; a monstrous amount of money in that time.

Maybe worth mentioning are the defence works along this dike. Of course, so thought of Secretary of Defence, this dike should be protected against assaults of eventual enemy’s. Everywhere along the dike you can find them:  the so-called “kazematten” (literally “soldiers places”).

The 10th of May 1940 Germany invaded Holland. And the “kazematten”of the Afsluitdijk showed their value; everywhere in Holland the Germans broke through except for the Afsluitdijk!
Years and years after this, the Afsluitdijk stood as a Dutch symbol of unyielding resistance. A small museum is still there.

The first polder: De Wieringermeer.

The very first polder was reclaimed during the 1930’s. Before the Second World War the land was ready for agriculture and many farmers started a living. Just before the end of the Second World War (April 17 1945) the Germans bombed the dikes and the polder flooded. It was a pure action of aggression; no need to do that. Many lives were lost though,  and farms and houses were destroyed. Fortunately the water of the IJsselmeer (former Zuiderzee) was already fresh, so there wasn’t much damage to the ground itself.
Around 1950 the polder was inhabitable again.

The second polder: Noordoostpolder.
In 1936 the Dutch started to built the dike (length of 34 miles) and 3 big pumping stations. The dike was closed in 1940, but it took more than 2 years before the new polder was dry: it was September 1942.
Holland was occupied by the Germans in that time and the reclaiming and forming of the landscape took much longer than was planned.

Two former islands are received into the landscape. One of them –Schokland – is a monument of the Unesco’s World Inheritance. It’s a lovely place to be and certainly worth visiting. Schokland certainly is still an island, its has everything that reminds you of the surrounding water, except for the fact that it’s missing. The harbour with its jetties are there, as a silent monument in the landscape. There’s a museum in the former church of Schokland.

Missing water

With the construction of the Noordoostpolder one big failure became very clear; the polder was situated directly next to the “old” land; with huge consequences for the water-household. The level of the groundwater in the ‘old’ region lowered immediately and the old land –mainly peat-moor- started to set.  To keep the groundwater at acceptable level; another pump-system was needed. 

So the solution came quickly: the next two polders have a so-called “randmeer” (literally margin-lake). It’s a piece of water between the ‘old’ land and the polder. No problem with the groundwater anymore; and this “randmeer” is lovely for all kinds of marine sports; not to forget a marvellous place to skate in wintertime, when all that water is frozen.

The third polder: Oostelijk Flevoland
In 1950 the building of the 57 miles long first Flevoland-dike started.

February 2nd 1953 an enormous disaster took place in the southwest of Holland, this part of the country flooded due to a hurricane.  All the material that could be used to restore the damage was needed in that region. So the building of the Flevopolder dike was delayed for about a year. But in September 1956 the first piece of the Flevopolder-dike was closed. It took 9 months of continuous pumping before the polder was dry: June 29 1957. It took about 12 years before the first farms were built and around 1972, all the nowadays villages of that part of Flevoland were established.

 The last polder: Zuidelijk Flevoland

Zuidelijk Flevoland was dry at May 28 1968.  The pumping stations needed almost 7 months to get all the water out. The first farms arose in 1979.This polder has some striking details: the huge area’s of agriculture are surrounded by a big forest at the east side Horsterwold (4000 ha), a planned city for 300.000 people (Almere), and an unplanned, but lovely, nature reserve: the wetlands at the eastside, next to the IJsselmeer. It’s become one of the most important wetlands of Europe: de Oostvaardersplassen.  This nature reserve developed spontaneously; it simply was to deep to get all the water out: and huge amounts of birds –in all species; the rare brown and white harrier, grey goose, cormorant, spoonbills, great white heron and the little egret prefer to live there! With the birds other animals came; ermines, martens, otters, foxes and deer.

At the eastside of this polder, situated to the randmeer-piece called Wolderwijd, is a small village called Zeewolde. It has about 15.000 inhabitants. This village, is not only meant as service for the surrounding farms but also attractive as area for recreation. Thanks to its situation it’s interesting for water sports enthusiast.

The reclaiming and structuring of a polder

When the land is pumped dry; the whole place is very inaccessible. The soil is still very wet and muddy; it’s difficult, actually impossible to bring heavy machines into the area.  So the first routes for access are big canal already dug under water before the polder was pumped dry. Along that canal all the remaining water can be pumped away by the stations. And over these canal heavy machines can be brought into the areas, but by water rather than land. The first roads can be constructed and finally when the land is dry enough, the soil can be cultivated. It means hundreds of miles of canals, ditches and drains. Above as well as in the ground; drains everywhere. 
Of course the land architects have lots and lots of work: new land; planned villages, towns, farmhouses, forest, roads, bridges everything has to be built before the new polder gets its shape and form and colour. And trees are planted, millions of trees, to protect houses from the wind, and to bring more and more colour in a new human-made landscape.
The cultivation passes off in stages of a few thousand hectares a year. The main part of the new polder remains an inaccessible wilderness. To keep this wilderness under control; reed is being sown by small planes, just after the ground has fallen dry.  Reed keeps other weeds away, and it uses large amounts of water, so the ground dries more quickly.

Every cultivated piece gets it final destination; mostly for farming. So farmers all over the country are invited to start a new life in the polder. This pioneers never regret their decision; somehow its very fascinating to work on new-born ground, as if your in the very new world just after creation.

Holland, not only Amsterdam

In this article I wanted to tell you about another side of Holland. Of course Amsterdam is famous for its canals, trams, buildings and drug policy. But The Netherlands have much more to offer for the one who wants to find it. And the construction of new land – surely also and typical Dutch phenomenon – is one of them.
Visit it and enjoy this beautiful country.

with many thanks to: the museum new land, Lelystad




Archived features