Cycling on water, crossing the Houtribdijk

It’s not every day that you get to cycle across one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World – even if it’s only one of the Seven Wonders according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. That though is what I found myself doing as I cycled along the Houtribdijk, a 30km-long dike that connects the new Dutch town of Lelystad to the ancient Dutch town of Enkhuizen just to the north of Amsterdam.

The Houtribdijk forms part of the immense Zuiderzee Works, a series of dams, dikes, locks and sluices begun in 1932 with the construction of the Afsluitdijk. Intended to protect the Netherlands from floods that periodically devastated the country, the Afsluitdijk transformed the Zuiderzee from a large saltwater inlet of the North Sea into a freshwater lake, the IJsselmeer. It also began a large-scale land reclamation programme that added an extra 1,650km2 of dry land to the Netherlands.

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Boats on the Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The city of Lelystad, my start point, was built in the 1960s on land reclaimed from the water. Today it’s home to 75,000 people, and sits about 3 metres below sea level. It would be fair to say that Lelystad’s very existence depends on the Afsluitdijk keeping out the waters of the North Sea. The Houtribdijk was built at the same time as the city. When it opened in 1975 it sliced the IJsselmeer in two, creating a new lake to the south, the Markermeer.

The original plan had been to drain the Markermeer and reclaim another 700km2 of new land. That was derailed by growing financial and environmental concerns in the 1980s, so the Markermeer remained a lake and has become a vital recreational area and wetland habitat. As you cycle along this enormous hydraulic engineering project, the vast expanse of grey-blue water seems to stretch forever, merging seamlessly with the horizon.

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica 17th century Dutch Ship, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah's Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

Replica Noah’s Ark, Markermeer, Lelystad, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

I cycled from Lelystad’s train station to the shore of the Markermeer where fishing boats and pleasure boats mingle along the shoreline. Improbably, in the harbour was a 70m long ‘replica’ of Noah’s Ark – I’m not sure how you can have a replica of something no one has ever seen. The Ark is billed as the first floating biblical theme park. It’s spent the last five years touring Europe, but is now back in the Netherlands.

Leaving that absurdity behind, I passed an actual replica of a 17th-century Dutch East India Company ship, the De 7 Provincien. In the background was the magnificent Anthony Gormley sculpture, Exposure, of a crouching man looking out over the water next to the Houtribdijk. I was soon on top of the lock system that allows boats to transfer between the two halves of the lake, and I could see the dike snaking into the distance.

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The IJsselmeer, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

The Houtribdijk between Lelystad and Enkhuizen, Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

The cycle lane starts alongside the N302 main road, but soon drops down below the road so that you’re cycling alongside the water, and the 8,500 vehicles that pass along the dike each day are several metres above you. It’s quite strange, but very peaceful as you can’t see or really hear the traffic. Boats pass by as you cycle along, and after a couple of bends in the road the route becomes arrow straight.

I reached Trintelhaven, an ‘island’ in the middle of the dike with a small harbour, car park and restaurant. It also has a small beach. Carrying straight on I finally popped back up onto the top of the dike and I could see my destination, the beautiful medieval town of Enkhuizen. I didn’t have long in Enkhuisen before jumping on a train towards the equally attractive town of Hoorn.

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

Enkhuizen Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’

Indistinct at first, it takes a while to make out the shape that squats impassively on the edge of the water. When its form finally takes shape, it is something of a Eureka moment. A sense of disbelief at the scale of the what I was seeing started to wash over me. A vast metal man sits on his haunches looking out over the still, grey water of the Markermeer. Magical realism living in the Dutch landscape.

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

On a cold but sunny morning, steam rising from the ground, it felt like we were seeing the remnants of a long-forgotten ancient civilisation. For anyone who has seen the Angel of the North, or the cast-iron life-size figures of Another Place on Formby Beach, or even Event Horizonwhich once graced London rooftops, this extraordinary piece of public art couldn’t be by anyone other than Anthony Gormley.

Officially opened in 2010 and titled Exposure, less generous observers refer to it as de hurkende man, the squatting man. Less politely, some people refer to it as de poepende man, the shitting man. It’s not difficult to understand why.

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

What’s less understandable is why it took me nearly two years to discover this monumental sculpture. You’d think something this dramatic and beautiful would grace the covers of tourist literature, or even find its way into a guidebook or two. I only found out about it while flicking through the KLM in-flight magazine en route to Schiphol one day.

To give this behemoth some context, it stand 26 metres tall and weights 60 tonnes. It has over 5,000 components with 14,000 metal bolts holding them together. If it looks like it has been bolted together from bits of old electricity pylon, that’s because it was specially manufactured by a Scottish company that makes electricity pylons. It took three years to make all the parts and over a month to construct.

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

This doesn’t tell the whole story. Its geometric design required the collaboration of two universities to develop special software and algorithms, allowing a 3-D digital model to be created that could then become a physical sculpture. It ran over budget and spiraling costs almost saw it scrapped. It finally ‘opened’ nearly ten years after the original competition was launched by the municipality of Leylstad.

Bizarrely, given all of these trials and tribulations, it’s quite hard to get to if you don’t know where you’re going. Cycling from Leylstad train station we didn’t see  a single signpost to guide curious visitors. Given its size, it really shouldn’t be so difficult to locate.

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

The Squatting Man sits on a polder overlooking the Markermeer close to the Houtribdijk, one of the great engineering feats of the endless Dutch battle against water. When the ancient inland sea, the Zuiderzee, was closed by the construction of the Afsluitdijk in 1932, it improved flood protection and created Western Europe’s largest lake: the IJsselmeer.

Huge land reclamation efforts saw a new Dutch province created, and the city of Leylstad was founded on land once under water. The Houtribdijk was built in the 1960s and 70s and today connects Leylstad with the Medieval town of Enkhuizen. It sliced the IJsselmeer in half, creating the Markermeer in the process.

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

De hurkende man, Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

The view from Anthony Gormley's 'Exposure', Leylstad, Netherlands

The view from Anthony Gormley’s ‘Exposure’, Leylstad, Netherlands

Water played a role in the creation of Exposure. As global warming raises sea levels, the polder upon which the Squatting Man crouches will have to be built higher, slowly covering the sculpture. So it’s not just something beautiful to admire, it has meaning as well.

The truly wonderful thing about Exposure is that from a distance it is clearly a man, squatting. Move towards it though and it starts to lose shape and form until, when stood next to it or walking underneath its hulking mass, it becomes nothing more than a tangle of meaningless pieces of metal. The illusion undone by proximity.