Preserving the traditions of the herring fleet

Fish and fishing have been central to the history and culture of the communities that for centuries have lived and worked along the shores of the Zuiderzee. In the 17th Century, Zuiderzee towns got rich from the trade in spice, gold and silk that flowed to these waters all the way to India, Japan, China and Indonesia. The wealth it generated was so enormous it launched the Dutch Golden Age. The towns of Hoorn and Enkhuizen were founding members of the Dutch East India Company, and trade with the East saw them flourish for a century or more.

It was fish and fishing that was the mainstay for most communities in this region though. North Sea herring, supplemented by whaling, formed the backbone of their economies until the 18th Century, by which time many harbours had silted up and ocean-going boats couldn’t reach the open sea. The Zuiderzee continued to provide a living for many communities, and eel became an important catch. It is the history of these communities that is preserved at the open air Zuiderzee Museum in Enkhuizen.

Drying fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drying fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Known as the Southern Sea in English, the Zuiderzee was really a large bay of the North Sea. It was created in the 13th Century by rising sea levels that flooded the land, and a series of ferocious storms which destroyed the dunes and marshlands that formed a natural barrier to the sea. Although it extended 100km inland, had a coastline of around 300km and covered a vast 3,200 square kilometres, the water was rarely more than 4 metres deep. This gave rise to the iconic flat-bottomed boats with keels attached to their sides that remain a feature of the former Zuiderzee.

Over the centuries North Sea storms, similar to those that helped form the Zuiderzee, regularly brought death and destruction to this region. The St. Elizabeth’s Day Flood of 1421 was one of the worst; it caused massive damage and left up to 10,000 people dead across the country. There were dozens of smaller floods over the centuries, but also some much bigger natural disasters, including the Great Storm of 1703, one of the the worst ever recorded in northern Europe.

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The idea of damming the Zuiderzee to prevent these disasters had first been mooted in the 17th Century, but it was the vicious floods of 1916 that finally pushed the Dutch government into action. It took nearly two decades more, but eventually the Afsluitdijk, a 32km dyke sealing the Zuiderzee off from the North Sea, was completed and the Zuiderzee became the IJsselmeer, Western Europe’s largest lake.

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

School room, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

School room, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Gapers, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

This was little short of a disaster for the communities of the Zuiderzee, the fishing fleet became redundant as the salt water of the Zuiderzee turned into the fresh water of the IJsselmeer. Villages and towns lost the mainstay of their livelihoods and most communities went into a spiral of decline. Centuries old traditions began to be lost and an entire part of Dutch history appeared to be on the verge of extinction.

Until, that is, the idea of the Zuiderzee Museum took shape. Recreating a traditional fishing village, original historic buildings from across the region were brought to Enkhuizen and turned into a late 19th, early 20th Century Zuiderzee fishing village. There are 130 buildings in the museum-cum-village, many of them are inhabited by people who dress in traditional clothing and continue traditional trades, such as smoking fish, to recreate the lives of typical villagers. It is a brilliant and atmospheric place to visit, and offers a unique insight into a way of life that has all but vanished.

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Hand washing, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Hand washing, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

As a footnote, the construction of the Afsluitdijk wasn’t just about preventing natural disasters; it was part of a larger plan to reclaim more land from the water. By 1968 three large areas of over 1,300 square kilometres of ‘new’ land had been created. Villages like Elburg which had once been on the coast found themselves inland, and new towns like Lelystad and Almere were constructed on the new land.

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Villagers in costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Toilet door, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Toilet door, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

A new dam linking Enkhuizen with Lelystad was constructed in 1976 as a prelude to a fourth reclamation project, but rising environmental concerns put an end to this and any further projects to reduce the former Zuiderzee in size.

Taming nature at the Zuiderzee Museum

Being at the mercy of violent, catastrophic storms has been one of the defining features of Dutch life over the last thousand years; and for all that time the people of the Netherlands have responded by trying to tame nature. The struggle to contain water is ingrained in society and etched into a landscape of polders. I’m not sure if those ‘rumours’ about webbed feet are true, but given the history there’s a reasonable evolutionary chance…

In 1932 the Dutch government took a momentous decision: they built a dyke. Dyke building being something of a national pastime this shouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but the Afsluitdijk was no ordinary dyke. Stretching for 32km it was designed to seal off the Zuiderzee from the North Sea, bringing to an end centuries of frequent, vicious floods. The decision to build the Afsluitdijk came after a hugely destructive storm in 1916 that smashed dykes, flooded vast tracts of land and left many dead.

Traditional Dutch costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Fishing nets, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Fishing nets, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Smoking fish, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Afsluitdijk was built to prevent this from ever happening again, but taming nature came at a heavy price for the fishing villages and towns that relied upon the Zuiderzee for their livelihoods. Constructing the Afsluitdijk destroyed a way of life that had existed around the shores of the Zuiderzee for centuries. The communities and traditions that had been built on fishing and seafaring began to wither and die.

The fishing fleets that once sailed from the towns of the Zuiderzee caught herring, a cash crop that made the region wealthy. The Afsluitdijk prevented the fish from coming in, and the boats from going out, a calamity for dozens of communities. The Dutch relationship with herring continues unabated though – seeing someone eat pickled herring early in the morning still sends a shiver down my spine. One of my Dutch friends considers it a hangover cure; I consider pickled herring an incentive to never be hungover.

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen is known as Haringstad, or Herring Town. Its relationship with the oily fish is emphasised on its coat of arms, which incorporates three herring, each wearing a crown of gold, on a shield being held by a woman. It is fitting then that here in 1948 the Dutch government took steps to preserve the traditions and way of life of the Zuiderzee fishing communities. A plan was concocted for an open air museum constructed as an archetypal fishing village on the shores of the former Zuiderzee.

The museum is split in two, an indoor and an outdoor museum, the latter recreating a traditional fishing village. They didn’t just build replicas of buildings, they brought the original buildings from across the region to Enkhuizen. There is a fascinating black and white short film in one of Enkhuizen’s restored houses, including the surreal sight of huge buildings being transported along roads and canals. It took 35 years for the outdoor museum to be opened to the public, but it was worth the wait.

Traditional Dutch costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Traditional Dutch costume, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

There are 130 buildings in the museum-cum-village and many of them are inhabited which, when you think about it, is a bit weird. A museum that is a reconstructed 19th Century fishing village is inhabited by 21st Century humans; not only that, the inhabitants wear traditional clothes, shops are actually shops selling things, workshops continue long lost crafts, and herring is smoked in the traditional manner to be bought and eaten by visitors.

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Fishing nets, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Fishing nets, the Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Zuiderzee Museum, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The residents role play being late 19th or early 20th Century villagers, going about their business largely ignoring the throngs of tourists snapping photos of them. Traditional clothes, and particularly traditional hats, from across the region are worn and there are plenty of clogs on display. The general rule in the village is, if a door to a building is open you can look inside. It’s a fascinating and illuminating experience, but it must be a truly odd existence for the handful of inhabitants.

Enkhuizen, a Dutch Golden Age gem

The glories of the Dutch seafaring past are nowhere better illustrated than in Enkhuizen. Long the home of a fishing fleet, in 1602 Enkhuizen became one of the founding ports of the Dutch East India Company. Trade in precious metals and silks, and even more precious spices, from Japan, China, Indonesia and India flowed through the town, making it one of the wealthiest in the Netherlands during the Dutch Golden Age. The town flourished on the vast profits from trade, leaving behind an almost perfectly preserved town centre much of which dates from the 17th Century.

To say that Enkhuizen is an attractive place is something of an understatement. The town may have the trappings of the 21st Century, but it is remarkable how much of it has survived down the centuries. History seems to seep out of every building and it doesn’t take much to imagine yourself back in the 17th Century. The town is compact, but its narrow lattice of ancient streets and canals makes for rewarding strolling.

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The train journey from Amsterdam took us through the Waterland region and the equally historic town of Hoorn, another founding member of the Dutch East India Company. Enkhuizen is the end of the line for the train, the town’s station stops just short of the harbour and overlooks the IJsselmeer, the large body of water that used to be the Zuiderzee which once gave Enkhuizen’s ships direct access to the North Sea.

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Drommedaris, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Most people who visit Enkhuizen, and it’s popular with tourists, come here because it’s home to one the best museums in the country. More of the brilliant Zuiderzee Museum  later, but the town is something a star attraction in its own right. We walked along the new harbour to the entrance into the old harbour. It’s a picturesque sight, ships masts in the background and towering over the whole scene is the Drommedaris, a 17th Century tower that was once part of the city defences.

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Our explorations didn’t get very far. The sun was shining and the opportunity to sit outside in the sun was too enticing to pass up; it was time for lunch so we pulled up a chair at a table overlooking the old harbour and soaked up the atmosphere. Quite some time later we finally set off to explore the town before heading to the Zuiderzee Museum. Not for the first time since I’ve been here I marvelled at how the Netherlands has managed to physically preserve so much of its history. I can only lament the situation in the UK.

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

IJsselmeer, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

IJsselmeer, Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen, like so many other Dutch towns, is so historic, so old Europe, so traditionally Dutch, so picture-postcard-perfect that it verges on the twee. That’s one of the most fabulous things about the Netherlands, but I’m beginning to worry I might be approaching historic town burnout. I’m pretty sure that’s a medical condition.