The River Zaan is home to some strange beasts, their names evoking a bygone time: The Cat, The Ox, The Young Lamb and The Spotted Hen. They stand majestic, lining the bank and towering over the lazy waters of the river, where they are joined by The Cloverleaf, The Houseman, The Crowned Poelenburg and The Seeker. These are the magnificent working industrial windmills of the Zaanse Schans, a piece of Dutch history set amidst a dramatic Dutch landscape.
The Zaanse Schans is a living, breathing, open air museum; one that was created in 1961 by bringing dozens of historic old buildings from across the Zaan region and creating a village on the river. A replica of the many typical villages of this area it may be, but its authenticity isn’t in doubt and all the glorious wooden buildings are originals. It lends itself to tourism and even on a coldish March day, albeit a sunny weekend day, there were plenty of people visiting. I’d imagine in the height of summer it can be pretty unbearable for both visitors and residents.
The region was at its peak during the 17th and 18th Centuries, when it boasted over one thousand working windmills. Amsterdam is just a short distance away – 20 minutes by train today, a little longer by boat in the 17th Century – and its thriving port and massive city expansion was the engine for the industrialisation of the Zaan region. This industrial heritage goes back further to the 16th Century, making this one of the world’s earliest industrialised regions. People will tell you it is the oldest industrial area in the world, but that’s a hard claim to substantiate.
Exploring the windmills of Zaanse Schans gives a clue to what people in Amsterdam needed. The Spotted Hen and The Seeker are oil mills, The Cloverleaf and The Young Sheep are sawmills, The Houseman a mustard mill and The Cat is a paint and dye pigment mill. These are just some of the many commodities milled in the region: paper, barley, rice, tobacco and hemp were a few of the others. It must have been an extraordinary sight it’s peak of industrial activity: raw materials arriving in shiploads from around the world, in particular from the East Indies where the Dutch were building an Empire. Raw goods need processing and windmills provided the power to do just that.
It’s easy to view windmills as just a prosaic extension of the modern rural landscape; but these were self contained factories that wrought huge change and led to enormous economic and social upheaval. Their appearance in the landscape was every bit as revolutionary and shocking as the urban factories of the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th and early 19th Centuries. At least windmills run on renewable energy. At one time there were over one thousand windmills in this region, but the introduction of the coal powered steam engine not only brought pollution, it also liberated industry from the vagaries of the wind. By 1850 only a handful of windmills survived.
The day I was there most of the windmills were turning their sails, but only The Cat was open. Stepping inside (€4 entrance fee), I was immediately confronted by giant 5000 kilogram granite stones grinding limestone for use in paint pigments. There was a strong wind and the noise was tremendous, the interior wheels and drive shaft mechanism were moving at alarming speeds. Going up the narrow steep ladders, noise levels don’t get much better and the whole building seems to vibrate as the sails turn. They may look picturesque from the outside, but working inside one of these early factories can’t have been easy on the ears.
The Cat is a Smock windmill, where only the cap on top of the structure needs to be rotated to take advantage of the wind when it changes direction. You’d never guess it today, but The Cat is actually two windmills grafted together. The base was part of an oil mill known as The Cat, the top, however, comes from a dye mill called De Duinjager, The Dune Hunter. After exploring the interior of The Cat, I was chatting to the woman selling the tickets and she told me there was a nice walk through the nearby polders, the drained agricultural areas that form much of the Dutch landscape.
I wandered past the other mills and found the entrance to the 1.5 kilometre walking route and headed across country…