Historically speaking, many Dutch towns and villages depended on fish and fishing for their livelihoods, and fish still play a big part of the Dutch psyche. There’s a reason the national dish is a pickled herring washed down with chopped raw onions and gherkins. Some of my colleagues claim this is the ideal hangover cure, but frankly I’d need to be drunk rather than hungover to eat that particular national delicacy.
As I walked around the charming medieval town of Woudrichem, it was clear fish were big here too. The coat of arms is two fish on a gold shield, and the town’s flag also features a fish. Head to the lovely compact old harbour, now a national monument, and you’ll find it packed with traditional Dutch fishing boats, including Aak, Stijlsteven, Skûtsje and Katwijker.
Woudrichem is a place of fewer than 5,000 people. It sits at the confluence of the Waal and Maas Rivers and, along with the nearby medieval castle of Slot Loevestein and the fortified town of Gorinchem, formed a key part of The Dutch Waterline defences. As part of the Waterline, the town had to be prepared to flood the surrounding countryside, and only a little recent development has taken place outside the original walls.
To reach Woudrichem I’d cycled the short distance from Slot Loevestein, and taken a small passenger boat across the Bergsche Maas. In this region of many waterways, boats are a common form of transport and this was my second, but not final, boat of this cycle ride.
The town was probably founded some time in the 9th century, changing hands over the centuries as the fortunes of the feudal nobility fluctuated. One remarkable incident, more for its name than anything else, took place in 1419. The Zoen van Woudrichem, or Kiss of Woudrichem, was a peace treaty negotiated between the female ruler of Woudrichem, Jacoba of Bavaria, and her uncle, John VI of Bavaria.
Technically there was no kissing involved, for some reason the use of the word ‘kiss’ meant ‘reconciliation’. Even then the reconciliation didn’t last long. The two warring factions of the same family were soon at loggerheads again, forcing another ‘kiss’ to take place in Delft a few years later.
At least that dispute didn’t result in Woudrichem being burned to the ground, which is what happened during the Eighty Years’ War. In 1572, Woudrichem sided with William of Orange against the Spanish in the opening salvos of the struggle for Dutch independence. When Dutch Forces arrived in the city in 1573 they realised that it was indefensible. Instead of allowing it to fall into Spanish hands, they burnt it down.
The town was rebuilt and the defensive walls strengthened once the Netherlands became independent. Most of what you see today is from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, but Sint-Martinuskerk (St. Martin’s Church) is older than that, and it is the church that has gained the nickname, the Mustard Pot. During a storm in 1717 the church lost its spire, leaving the stump which has become known as the Mustard Pot.
After strolling the quiet streets and stopping for a drink in one of the central cafes, I got back on my bike and headed along the Groenendijk, taking me on a beautiful journey along the banks of the Merwede river to a ferry crossing south of Dordrecht. Once over the river it was a quick 30 minute journey to Dordrecht’s railway station for the train back to The Hague.