Well over a thousand years of human history have unfolded in and around the village of Urk. Until 1939 Urk’s history was that of a small island community living an independent life in the Zuiderzee (South Sea). When the Afsluitdijk was completed in 1932, bringing an end to the periodic destruction of North Sea floods, Urk’s days as an island were numbered.
As well as turning the saltwater Zuiderzee into Europe’s largest fresh water lake, the Ijsselmeer, the Afskuitdijk changed the isolated existence of Urkers for ever. It heralded a remarkable phase of land reclamation around the shores of the Ijsselmeer, including the Noordoostpolder which now connects Urk to the rest of the Netherlands. Urk is an island no more.
For centuries the fishing boats of Urk left its harbour and set out to seek their fortune in the fisheries of the North Sea. As a poignant memorial overlooking the Ijsselmeer makes clear, this was an occupation that brought with it many risks. The violent storms that can consume the North Sea meant many Urkers never returned from the sea.
The history of this community is so intimately entwined with the sea I’d be surprised if Urkers didn’t have brine running in their veins instead of blood. The island developed its own traditions, its own culture, distinct clothing and its own dialect, Urkish. Even today, 80 years after being connected to the mainland, the Urkish dialect is still used within the community.
To underline the connection to the sea, one of many Urk folkloric tales involves a rock that pokes above the Ijsselmeer’s waters, the Ommelebommelestien (try saying that after a couple of beers). It’s claimed this is the birthplace of all Urkers. Legend has it that the child’s father had to row to the rock, open a door beneath the waterline and collect the baby from its watery birthplace.
Although tourism is much more important than it once was, fishing is still the lifeblood of the village. This is central to the identity of the community, clearly marking it out from the agricultural communities that have sprung up on the reclaimed land which now surrounds Urk. Urks boats now have to travel much further to access the sea, or its fishermen travel to ports elsewhere.
Religion also makes Urk different. The town sits in the Dutch ‘Bible Belt’ and has a disproportionate number of churches. Almost nothing opens on a Sunday. This underlines a bigger truth about the Netherlands: perceptions of an ‘anything goes’ society with legalised soft drug use and prostitution, has to be offset against the staunch Calvinism that runs through society.
I cycled from Lelystad along the shore of the Ijsselmeer in the early morning. On a calm sunny day the views over water were spectacular. I crossed the bridge over the Ketelmeer – stopping to allow some boats through – before arriving on the Noordoostpolder and onwards to Urk. All of my journey was made on land that a hundred years ago was under water.
Urk is a compact place centred around the picturesque harbour. Fishing and leisure boats litter the harbour, spend any time on the docks you’ll see boats come and go. Further back from the harbour are rows of fisherman’s cottages, many with images of boats with their numbers on, which I assume means the inhabitants work on that boat.
There is pretty church with a graveyard on a hilltop, but beyond that the village wasn’t as attractive as I’d expected. As I cycled back out of town a large pack of motorbike enthusiasts were arriving and a couple of tour buses were parking near the harbour. It was definitely time to make my excuses and leave.