Setting off from Middelburg I cycled down a wide canal towards Vlissingen, which in the 17th Century had been a major harbour for the Dutch East India Company, and today is where most Dutch Royal Navy ships are built. I’d been told Vlissingen wasn’t particularly interesting, so I crossed the canal and headed for the coast further north.
It was a sunny day and the beaches were busy with people enjoying themselves, particularly Belgian and German tourists who flock to this area in summer. This isn’t surprising, these are the closest beaches to some of Germany’s largest cities, and Belgium is close enough you could almost throw a stone and hit it.
I’d been cycling for an hour or so and thought I’d earned a sit on the beach. As I came over the top of the dunes I was struck by the extraordinary sight of large ships sailing close, and I mean close, to the beach en route to the Scheldt River and the port of Antwerp. The ships seem so close that you definitely shouldn’t swim too far out into the water.
Antwerp is Europe’s second busiest port, and one of the top twenty in the world, so a lot of ships pass alongside the beaches of Zeeland. It’s a mesmerising sight as they glide along the coast and out into the vast Scheldt estuary.
After a walk along the beach I headed further along the coast towards the village of Westkapelle. The first thing I saw of Westkapelle – and I saw it from miles away – was one of its two famous light houses. This is the ‘oldest’ lighthouse in the Netherlands, the tower dating from 1470. Back then it was a church, the light was added in 1818. This at least explains why a lighthouse is such a long way from the coast.
Westkapelle seemed like a pleasant little place. Only when I came across a Sherman tank on top of a dyke, did I discover the village was the scene of dramatic and deadly events during World War II. In 1944 Allied troops were preparing to invade but this area was heavily guarded by the German army. The allies came up with a destructive plan.
The British air force bombed the dykes to flood the German defenders out. In doing so they destroyed a large part of the village, killing 180 civilians in the process. It took a year to repair the dykes. The Sherman tank is a memorial, not to Westkapelle’s dead but to the 4th Commando Brigade of the British Liberation Army, which landed here and fought inland to liberate the islands of Zeeland. I would come across other memorials in villages nearby.
Later, when reading about the village, I learned the truly disturbing fact that in 2012 Westkapelle became infamous in the Netherlands for the country’s worst ever sexual abuse scandal. A local resident abused around 250 young boys over a 40 year period. Worse still, his abuse was an open secret in this tiny community but no one reported it to the police. Strange but true.
I cycled along the sea wall and dykes separating the ocean from the land, passing through Domburg on my way to Oostkapelle, before turning inland back towards Middelburg. The flat landscape of the interior contrasts sharply with the coast, but to its credit you can cycle here and hardly see another person. Back in Middelburg I planned a route for my next journey through Zeeland.