The Netherlands never ceases to amaze. For such a small country it has a lot of history. History that has had enormous influence on the world. The calm and attractive Vliet Canal is one of those pieces of a much larger historical puzzle. The canal connects Leiden to Delft, where it meets another canal that links it to the Nieuwe Maas river at Delfshaven. From there it is just a short journey to the open sea.
The Vliet Canal was dug in 47AD, when this area was part of the Roman Empire. In nearly 2,000 years of existence, many boats have sailed on it, none more important for Western Civilisation than the Dutch barges that sailed from Leiden to Delfshaven in July 1620. On board these boats were the men and women who would travel across the Atlantic on board the Mayflower, and go on to found Plymouth Colony.
These English religious dissidents would become known to posterity as the Pilgrim Fathers (were their no women?). They’d been living in Leiden for eleven years after fleeing what they saw as religious persecution. When they left Leiden on their way to establish what would become Massachusetts, they sailed down the Vliet Canal to Delfshaven, before boarding the Speedwell to England and then on to the New World.
I doubt any of the Pilgrims thought it a significant moment in history, and no one seems to make much of a fuss about it today either. Cycling along the Vliet, past grand houses and lovely polder landscapes, there is hardly any mention of this history other than a small statue in Leiden. It’s a lovely cycle though. Starting in Voorburg, a historic suburb of The Hague, I followed the canal all the way to Leiden.
I stopped in Voorburg to admire the Hofwijck, former home of Constantijn Huygens, a renowned 17th century Dutch politician, and of his son, Christiaan Huygens, whose study of the Rings of Saturn led him to discover Titan. A few kilometres further along the Vliet is the small village-cum-suburb of Leidschendam, which has a picturesque centre next to some locks on the canal.
Leidschendam has a human history that dates back to the Romans, but it was the canal that made it a prosperous place in the medieval period. Several windmills were built near here, and the 17th century Salamander windmill still sits on the banks of the Vliet. The Salamander was a sawmill, you can tell by the elongated building that forms its base – long enough to get a tree inside.
Next to the locks in Leidschendam is a very odd sculpture. I don’t know what it’s supposed to represent, but one of the three figures has a dog on his arm, another a sail boat, the third has a misshaped globe on his head. Either that or a potato. Try as I might, I’ve not been able to discover anything about this entertaining trio. If anyone knows anything about it, send me a message.
The rest of the 10 or 12 kilometres to Leiden is along the canal, you don’t pass through any more villages but you do pass lots of boats and through some attractive Dutch countryside. It’s not a long journey, but it is calm and peaceful, and right on my doorstep.