Windmills, simultaneously iconic and anachronistic, hold a powerful fascination. The De Valk (The Falcon) windmill in Leiden is a survivor. There were once nineteen windmills built on city walls of Leiden, grinding corn to feed the population, and De Valk is the only one to have made it into the modern age. Now a well preserved and informative museum, it is also the only windmill in the Netherlands to retain the original miller’s residence from the 19th Century.
That it survived this long is something of an achievement. Built on the Valkenburger Rampart of the city walls, from where it gets it’s name, De Valk was originally constructed as a much simpler wooden ‘post’ mill around 1611. In 1667 it was pulled down and replaced with a bigger eight-sided ‘smock’ mill. Less than a century later in 1743 it was replaced again by the present brick-built ‘tower’ mill. Remarkably it took only two months to complete this final construction of De Valk.
As you walk around the building, you really are walking through four hundred years of history. The 1743 version of De Valk is big, inside and out. The base is 29 metres high; the top part above the wooden Reefing Stage platform another 14 metres; and the sails are 27 metres in length. Until 1869 this wasn’t just a corn mill capable of producing 1280 kg of flour daily – enough to feed 8000 people – it was also home to two families. There are nine floors, the bottom two given over to living quarters.
Climbing up the stairs out of the ground floor kitchen, the first floor was where the bedrooms would have been, but is now houses an audio-visual show. The higher you get in a windmill the rooms become increasingly narrow (and a little claustrophobic) and the stairs become ever steeper until, close to the top, they are almost vertical. In a functioning mill the millers would have had to go up and down these stairs dozens of times a day as the corn was ground – I don’t envy them that.
Above the first floor De Valk transforms itself from comfy home into a factory. When the sails of a windmill are going they generate a lot of noise and vibration; add to that the sound of grinding machinery and this cheek by jowl existence must have made for very noisy living arrangements.
The milling floor has a large chute in the middle, down which came the ground flour to be weighed and bagged. This is also the level where you can go out onto the Reefing Stage where the miller would have controlled the sails, changing their direction using the large wheel and adding or removing cloth from the sails depending upon how strong the wind was blowing. Today, you get panoramic views over Leiden.
Higher still are the grinding floors which are full of milling stones, ropes and pulleys, and all manner of old equipment. The very top floor is the smallest in the building, with some tiny windows providing a little light. It’s only at this point that the reality of going back down hits you. Looking down the very steep and narrow stairs is vertigo inducing…