Walking along the waterways of Kinderdijk, admiring the serene landscape dotted with some of the best preserved windmills in the Netherlands, you have to remind yourself that despite the beautiful pastoral scene before you windmills were factories. This is doubly true of the wonderful and typically Dutch landscape around Kinderdijk. Windmills provided the power to drain and reclaim this land from nature and water – this is the epitome of a man-made landscape.
Windmills can power many different types of machines – for grinding grain, crushing rock, sawing wood, mixing clay and pumping water. Kinderdijk was apparently named after a baby was washed onto the dyke during the disastrous St. Catherine’s Flood of 1421 – windmills have been used to pump water away from this area ever since.
Kinderdijk is home to an exotic variety of windmills: Post mills, a wooden body built on brick foundations, where the whole of the building turns to catch the wind; Rotating Cap or Tower mills, where just the top of the mill turns, allowing it to be built much higher and for the sails to be much longer; and Smock mills, which are built using wood or weatherboard and have up to eight sides. Many of the mills are from the 18th Century, but the De Blokker Post mill dates back to the early 1500s.
This is a beautiful area to walk and take in the historic landscape, and as the nineteen windmills are spread apart you can happily spend a good half day strolling amongst them. Fair warning, Kinderdijk can turn you into a windmill nerd.
In the low lying Netherlands the windmill changed the course of the nation’s history and geography. Windmills were state-of-the-art flood control and land reclamation technology, pumping water from marshes and turning them into productive farmland. Windmills changed the Dutch landscape and mindset for ever. Spain may have the most famous fictional windmills, thanks to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Sancho Panza; but when people think of windmills, they think of the Netherlands.
The origins of the windmill are unclear. We know the Persians used them to grind grain around 900AD, although some claim they were a Greek invention centuries earlier. Like all good inventions they quickly spread and could be found in Northern Europe in the 1100s. It was shortly after this that a major innovation took place. Prior to the 13th Century windmills were fixed, if the wind was in the wrong direction the sails didn’t turn; then rotating windmills, allowing the blades to follow the wind, were invented.
Before long, this Middle Eastern invention could be spotted across Europe, from the Iberian Peninsular to Scandinavia to Bulgaria. They were very popular in Southern and Eastern England. Yet, it was in the Netherlands and Flanders (in neighbouring Belgium) that they reached their peak. It was a Dutch windmill owner, Cornelis Corneliszoon van Uitgeest, who in the 1590s innovated the next major technological advancement – a crankshaft.
Windmills could now be used for things other than grinding grain. They became sawmills, and soon there were hundreds of them sawing planks to build Dutch ships sailing to the Caribbean and Pacific spice islands. This one invention caused an industrial revolution and contributed to the Dutch Golden Age, when the Netherlands contested supremacy over trade with the Far East against other European nations, particularly England. It did have a downside: lots of hand woodcutters were left unemployed by mechanisation.
The building of sawmills and windmill-powered water pumps, led to a massive surge in windmill building over the following hundred years. Soon the Netherlands was covered in windmills, as many as 10,000 at the height of their popularity. Ironically, so successful were windmills that the Dutch responded very slowly to the 19th Century Industrial Revolution, this one driven by fossil fuels and steam.
History hasn’t been especially kind to the windmills of the Netherlands. Many thousands have vanished – destroyed or neglected – from the landscape. About 1000 windmills remain, and there are still a few places where you can get a sense of what the entire Netherlands must once have looked like when windmills ruled the landscape. Kinderdijk is the preeminent place to see windmills, and after a short walk from the visitors centre, away from the crowds of day trippers and tour buses, history comes alive once more.