I’m not sure its possible to avoid cliché when it comes to windmills and the Netherlands. They are amongst the top two or three things that the country is known for, perhaps only topped by tulips and cheese. Seen on countless chocolate boxes and t-towels, these idiosyncratic machines were a groundbreaking innovation. In the 17th and 18th Centuries, thousands of them were dotted along dykes all over the Netherlands. In 1850 there were more than ten thousand working windmills – which must have been an extraordinary sight.
Windmills appeared in the 12th Century and were quickly adapted to grind corn, coffee beans and mustard seeds, saw wood, pump water, crush ore and stone, as well as countless other industrial applications. They revolutionised manufacturing and drove the economy. Without the windmill to pump water and reclaim land, the Netherlands itself wouldn’t have existed in the way that it did and does. Today there are around a thousand windmills left standing, and they are still a thrilling sight.
In such a low-lying country these iconic features of the Dutch landscape tower over the countryside. We may view them as quaint remnants of a bygone era, but these giants were the cutting-edge technology of their era. Quaint to look at maybe, but standing outside on the wooden ‘stage’ half way up the Molen de Roos in Delft, the noise and vibration as the huge sails swirl past at speed is quite alarming. Not to mention the sense of motion sickness induced by the constant rotation of the sails.
The Molen de Roos (the Rose Windmill) was an unexpected treat, open and free to explore thanks to the volunteers who maintain and run it. The original windmill on this site was first mentioned in 1352, and it was rebuilt in 1679 with a much higher tower on the top. This was made from wood and was later replaced by the current stone tower sometime before 1727. Although it fell into disuse and became dilapidated, the whole thing was gloriously restored in the 1990s.
There are several distinct types of windmill. Molen de Roos is a tower mill with stage, often shortened to stage mill due their most distinctive feature. It is a typical example of a corn mill. The wind was quite strong the day I was there, and the sails were only partial covered with cloth to prevent it from picking up too much speed. An out-of-control windmill can literally tear itself apart. Molen de Roos was used to produce flour, and the grinding mechanism is still working. The speed with which the mechanism rotates presumably makes it quite dangerous to operate.
Emerging from the interior onto the stage the views over Delft were wonderful, although the massive rebuilding of the train station is a bit of a blot on the cityscape. While the sails are safely behind a rope preventing visitors from being decapitated, you can see the triangular ‘tail’ of the windmill with what looks like a steering wheel attached to it. This is used to rotate the top of the windmill and move the blades into the wind. There are various chains holding everything in place, and presumably preventing the whole building from taking flight.
The thing which struck me, other than the ridiculously steep steps, was the sheer size of the interior space. I hadn’t considered that they would be so large, but it was both home for the miller and his family, and a self contained factory accommodating a dozen or more people. I have to confess to being just a bit thrilled by my first windmill encounter, but life must have been pretty hard in the mills. The noise is overpowering, and going up and down the steep narrow stairs all day long can’t have been much fun.