Breathless, with the pounding hearts of the unfit, we emerged into the blinding light. It took a few seconds of retina adjustment after the dim light of the spiral staircase before our new reality swam into view, but there was no doubt, we’d made it to the top of the bell tower of Dordrecht’s Grote Kerk. Up here the difference between perception and reality became obvious; from the ground the tower doesn’t look all that high, looking down on the now diminutive city below proved how wrong we’d been.
I’d started by counting the stairs but lost count half way up while focusing on breathing and survival. I’m told there are 279 stairs but you can take it from me, it seems like a lot more than that. Once you’re up there though the views from the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk (Our Lady Church), as the Grote Kerk is properly known, are spectacular.
The whole of Dordrecht is laid out before you and you can follow the course of the surrounding rivers for miles; the city of Rotterdam is easily visible over 25km away. From the top of the tower the volume of shipping using the rivers becomes obvious. Small passenger ferries, sail boats, long and thin river cruisers and numerous cargo boats ply these waters. Trade and leisure linking Belgium, France, Germany and Switzerland with the Netherlands and the North Sea.
Standing on top of the Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk I felt connected to the rest of Western Europe; the timeless nature of these rivers, and the role they have played in the history of Europe, suddenly hit me. There is nothing like a bit of perspective to put you in your place and time. While I was musing over the nature of existence my attention was caught by the remarkable sight of a railway bridge ascending into the air.
This feat of engineering – lifting an entire section of a major railway line 50 metres upwards – was done to allow a few small sail boats to pass under the bridge, their masts otherwise too high to get underneath. On the far side of the railway bridge, a road bridge was also raised. This calm scene belies the turbulent history of these bridges, the capture of which was critical to German military operations in World War II.
Taking the bridges at Dordrecht intact was vital for Germany’s plans to overrun the Netherlands, the capture of Belgium and the invasion of France. It was here on May 10, 1940, that German airborne forces fought a series of vicious battles against poorly equipped Dutch defenders. The Dutch defeated the first attacks but eventually succumbed to the inevitable. Although the bridges fell into German hands, Dutch forces in Dordrecht continued to hold out for a while longer.
Winding our way back down the stairs of the tower, we walked through the lovely and unpretentious church. It is an old building, the earliest parts dating from around 1120, while the tower was finished in around 1470. The space inside is huge, with beautiful arches illuminated by the sun and wooden choir stalls dating to the 15th Century. What struck me most though was how similar some of the tombs were to those I’d seen in former Dutch colonial towns. In Galle, Sri Lanka, the carvings on tombs were almost identical.
On one wall of the church is an unremarkable memorial to the remarkable events of an earlier attempt by another European dictator to control the continent. The memorial is to a 22-year old English sailor, John Western, who died taking part in the 1793 siege of Willemstadt. The French Revolution was in full swing and, threatened with invasion by an alliance of European countries, French armies were marching across Europe ‘liberating’ people from tyranny and creating Republics supportive of France.
In the Netherlands the French sought to eliminate English influence in the country by removing the authoritarian Stadtholder, William V, from power. The Dutch resistance at Willemstadt – a remarkable star-shaped fortified town guarding the Holland Diep river – was supported by British ships. It was on one of these ships that the unfortunate Lieutenant Western found himself in March 1793. He died fighting French forces which would eventually conquer the Netherlands in 1795, forcing William V into exile in London.
The Napoleonic Wars would rage across Europe for another 20 years. Until 1806 the Netherlands would be known as the Batavian Republic, and was little more than a client state of France. Between 1806 and 1810 Napoleon forced the Dutch to accept his brother, Louis Bonaparte, as King of Holland. The first and last time the Netherlands was officially known as Holland, not that this has stopped people erroneously referring to it as Holland ever since. It finally became the Netherlands again in 1813 and has been so ever since.