Zeeland is home to many wonders. Ancient towns built on trade and full of medieval buildings like Middelburg, Veere and Zierikzee; a beautiful coastline dotted with broad sandy beaches that, outside the summer months, you can have to yourself; and wide open spaces of traditional Dutch countryside dotted with cows and perfect for cycling.
This though becomes rather meaningless when you realise that all of this is made possible by one of humanity’s more extraordinary attempts to control nature, and to tame the wild North Sea: the Delta Works. Most of Zeeland is below sea level and, on too many occasions, the sea has smashed through the dykes that have protected Zeeland for centuries, bringing death and destruction in its wake.
Hardy Zeelanders have been fighting the North Sea from time immemorial. It isn’t by chance that the official Zeeland motto is Luctor et Emergo, I Struggle and Emerge (presumably from the flood waters). Historically the region has been subjected to terrible floods, including the infamous St. Elizabeth’s Day flood of 1404, in which over 100,000 people are thought to have died across the country.
It was the devastation of the 1953 North Sea Flood that led to the building of the Delta Works though. A high Spring tide coincided with North Sea storms, together breaking the sea defences and flooding vast tracts of Zeeland. When the dykes broke in the middle of the night on January 31st, there was no system in place to warn people of the danger. The result was the death of 1,835 people, the majority of them in Zeeland.
Immediately after the flood the Delta Commission was formed, the result was the Delta Works: dams, sluices, locks, dykes and storm surge barriers were constructed across and around the Rhine-Meuse-Scheldt estuaries. The legacy today is extraordinary, described as one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World by the American Society of Civil Engineers.
If the Delta Works is a lasting legacy of the 1953 floods, so to is the siren that sounds across the Netherlands on the first Monday of the month. The siren was instituted after 1953 as a warning system in case of flooding. It can be heard anywhere and everywhere in the country and is tested every month to prove that it’s working.
If you’re not Dutch it comes as a bit of a surprise. The first time I heard it, I assumed that either the Luftwaffe was overhead or it was the Four Minute Warning and we were about to be obliterated in a nuclear war. Since no one was running for the air raid shelters I tried to remain calm and, as casually as possible, asked a Dutch colleague what the hell was going on. 1953, was the answer.
Cycling across the Delta Works you can appreciate their size and the enormity of the job they do. The estuary of the eastern Scheldt river is huge, the flood barriers protecting the people and agricultural land of this region equally impressive. Coming from Veere, I passed through the village of Vrouwenpolder (full of unusual public ‘art’), and crossed the Veerse Gatdam, a 2.8km long part of the Delta Works.
Construction of the Veerse Gatdam in 1961 created the Veersemeer and blocked the town of Veere’s access to the sea. It makes for a gentle introduction to the Delta Works, but next up on the chain of flood defences is the Oosterscheldekering, at 9km the largest of all the Delta Works projects. Partly a dam and partly storm surge barrier with sluice gates, it’s a monumental construction.
The Oosterscheldekering protects the Oosterschelde National Park, the largest in the Netherlands. It’s an exposed spot to be a cyclist, especially when the wind is blowing. My progress towards the other side and a well deserved late lunch in the town of Zierikzee was slow. Worse though were the ominous looking clouds that the wind seemed to be blowing in my direction…I didn’t know it yet, but I was in for a drenching.