Viewed from the bridge across the Zaan river the wonderful working windmills of Zaanse Schans are a memorable sight. Perched on the banks of the river, on a late winter morning they were almost silhouettes against the yellow reeds that form the landscape behind them. Walking along the dyke upon which the windmills sit, the slight elevation provides views across the typical Dutch landscape of polders criss-crossed with thin strips of water.
There is no more typical or traditional landscape anywhere in The Netherlands. It is strangely beautiful. After visiting De Kat, The Cat windmill, I walked along the dyke past a number of other windmills to find the start of a 1.5 kilometre walk that loops from the river into the polder and back to the village of Zaanse Schans. Only a short walk, but enough to acquaint myself with the way polders work. It also takes you away from the bustle of the village which, even in March, was busy.
It’s a fairly muddy walk at this time of year, but that is compensated for by the fantastic colours of the reeds and the peace and quite that surrounds you. I saw a couple of other walkers and a young family, but other than that I wandered alone. Walking here it’s easy to forget that all this land has been reclaimed from the water, and only continuous efforts to maintain the polders prevent the water claiming it back.
The soil of the polder sinks over time, and water levels from rain or ground water rise, until it eventually finds itself below the water level. Only through a series of pumps and sluices is the water drained away to make the land useable. Even then you have to be careful. Lots of these areas were peat marsh and peat needs to be kept wet or it decays. Drain too much water from the polder and the peat collapses. Keeping The Netherlands afloat is technical stuff.
Although the Romans built dykes in this area, the first Dutch polders were constructed in the 11th Century. Today more than half of Europe’s polders are found in one of its smallest countries. Without the polders and dykes it is no exaggeration to say that half of The Netherlands would disappear under water.
To that end Dutch authorities have an elaborate and highly effective way of managing water defences. Regional Water Boards, or Waterschappen, manage just about every aspect of water in the country: water barriers, waterways, water levels, water quality and sewage treatment all fall under their jurisdiction. I know this because I receive a tax bill every year for their services. This buys me a vote in electing members to the board. The function of the Waterschappen is little changed from Medieval times, although the central government takes responsibility for big flood defence projects.
The oldest of the Waterschappen is the Hoogheemraadschap van Rijnland, which was founded in 1248, and they have been busily moving water from one place to another ever since. These days pumping stations do most of the heavy work, but the humble windmill was the driving force behind most of the land reclamation across the country. Not the windmills of Zaanse Schans, they were industrial windmills, but there would have been plenty of others around this area 200 years ago keeping everyone’s feet dry.
At the end of the walk in the polders there was a raised platform, perhaps 20 metres high, offering tremendous views over the surrounding landscape. It was a windy day and the whole thing shook quite alarmingly. I gingerly made my way back down and headed into the lovely village of Zaanse Schans. It’s a beautiful place to stroll, full of old wooden houses and waterways – with the ever present windmills in the background.
It was only now that I came across a sign telling me that the building in front of me was the first Albert Heijn grocery store. Irrelevant to anyone who doesn’t live here, but Albert Heijn stores are ubiquitous these days – interesting to see where it all started.