Voorburg and the discovery of Titan

Voorburg. Hardly a place with global recognition. A place, until recently, I knew only as a railway station on the outskirts of The Hague, at which Dutch intercity trains don’t stop. I’ve passed through Voorburg a few times and, if seated on the appropriate side of the train, occasionally wondered about the historic house that sits in a moat right next to the train line.

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

Wondering about it never translated into finding out about it until one Friday afternoon. Chatting to a couple of colleagues about plans for the weekend, one mentioned a picturesque cycle ride between Voorburg and Leiden down the Vliet canal. At this point I had to admit that I didn’t know anything about Voorburg, a confession greeted by raised eyebrows.

The next day I set off on the short cycle ride to discover what I’d been missing. Voorburg is a beautiful hamlet, now absorbed into The Hague, with an extraordinary place in the history of science. It’s also one of the oldest human settlements in the Netherlands. The town had been a Roman outpost long before the Emperor Hadrian visited in 121AD and had a Forum constructed here.

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

The Hofwijck, Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Bridge into Voorburg, Netherlands

Bridge into Voorburg, Netherlands

The real draw at Voorburg isn’t Roman though, of which there is very little evidence left. The main attraction is Hofwijck, the historic house surrounded by a moat that you can see from the train. This was the home of Constantijn Huygens, a renowned 17th century Dutch politician and trusted adviser to the Princes of Orange during the Dutch Golden Age.

Hofwijck was built as a summer house. It became unbearably cold in winter and was impossible to heat, the family Huygens would relocate to The Hague in winter. It had glorious formal gardens that were more than double the size of the current gardens; when the railway was built in the 19th century though, the town of Voorburg gave away the gardens for the railway’s construction.

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

They did so on the condition that intercity trains would stop at the station. The ability for denizens of Voorburg to board intercity trains seems little reward for an act of cultural vandalism, one that saw the destruction of a piece of Dutch history. Intercity trains stopped calling at Voorburg in 2006 and the gardens of Hofwijck are still buried under the railway. No one wins, apparently.

While Constantijn Huygens was the original owner of the house, its most famous occupant was his son, mathematician and scientist, Christiaan Huygens. It was the younger Huygens’ fascination with astronomy that drove his desire to understand and build telescopes. He was famous across Europe for making pioneering optics, and corresponded with none less that Descartes on the subject.

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Cork bike, Voorburg, Netherlands

Cork bike, Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

It was this fascination that led Huygens to make his most famous discovery. In 1655, while studying the Rings of Saturn, he discovered Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, using a telescope he’d made himself. He did have help, he constructed his often massive telescopes, including ones without a metal tube, with his elder brother, named Constantijn after their father.

The house itself is tiny, really just one room on each floor. I suspect the interior might not have been so interesting but for the fact that it had a lot of items on loan from a museum in Leiden, including an original Huygens telescope and many of his letters corresponding with virtually every famous scientist and man of letters of the era: Newton, Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Leibniz to name but a few.

Sheep in the churchyard, Voorburg, Netherlands

Sheep in the churchyard, Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

Voorburg, Netherlands

When I arrived at Hofwijck it was closed – it only opens at midday on a Saturday. This allowed me the opportunity to take a leisurely stroll around the historic centre of Voorburg. Like much of the Netherlands, the preservation of this historic place is quite amazing. There are over 250 historic buildings in this tiny place, some dating from the 13th century. I can’t imagine why it has taken me so long to discover it.

Strange but true: Voorburg has an internationally approved cricket ground where One Day Internationals are played.