Today was a day off and I opted for the tour of Northern Netherlands – thinking it would be primarily of Friesland. However, we went rather farther afield than I expected. Our bus took us west towards the Barrier Dyke or ‘afsluitdijk‘ which prevents the North Sea from entering the Netherlands and has created a freshwater lake the ‘IJsselmeer’ to the south of it. Quite a fantastic piece of engineering when you consider that the plan as implemented was conceived in 1891, with the Dutch Parliament approving it in 1918 and then building it between 1927 and 1932. The whole dyke 32km in length and is 90m wide at the base and slopes up to be at least 10m above the spring high tide. It carries a four lane autobahn on the lower inland side. After a brief stop at the site where the east and west sides of the dyke met, thus completing the enclosure and creating the IJsselmeer, our bus carried us on southwest towards the village of Zaanse Schan in the district of Zaandam, which is actually quite close to Amsterdam.
Zaanse Schan is a village preserved to represent life in the 1500 – 1600s, although with the coach loads of tourists, not surprisingly quite a few of the houses have been turned into commercial enterprises to cater to a captive audience. Think upper canada village but with the added feature of overpriced dutch trinkets for sale throughout the village. Interestingly, about one third of the houses are privately owned and lived in by families, albeit with hordes of tourists passing by in front.
At Zaanse Schan I discovered the answer to a question which had been puzzling me somewhat – “what is up with wooden clogs”? I mean who would willingly put their feet into uncomfortable wooden vices? There is a whole museum devoted to the story of the clog, and in short it goes something like this.
Long before there was widespread use of hydraulic machinery (the famous dutch windmills being the first of these), the locals would dig drainage ditches by hand, heaving the spoil up into the centre, creating the ‘polder‘, upon which they would build their houses, towns, farms etc. The soil is very peaty and they learned early on that pressing the peat spoil to remove excess water would (1) improve their drainage and quality of the soil for agriculture, and (2) would produce a sort of peat coal which could be burned to heat homes. The first clogs were in fact wooden footwells carved into flat pieces of wood, with which the locals could press water out of the soil. Over time, the necessity to press water became less important and the flat pieces of wood became obsolete, leaving the wooden shoe, which then became a useful cultural icon, and adapted for other uses. Notably a special clog with up to three or four inches of wood above the crown and toes of the foot was created which could be used as a fulcrum for levers being applied to move rocks in dyke building projects. The first ‘safety toe’ boot so to speak.
After two hours, a small snack and beer, we loaded the bus and headed off to Volendam and thence to the island of Marken situated on the western edge of the IJsselmeer. I found Volendam to be a bit more interesting than Marken, which although it is also an area of old villages, there isn’t much to do on a Sunday except to browse countless harbourside souvenir shops. We returned to Volendam, grateful for the well stocked bar on board, and then our two hour return to Zoutkamp.
Interestingly, even around Zoutkamp, the land must be about 10feet below sea level, as the main dykes are all a minimum of at least 20feet (6m) high. There are almost no fences between farm fields, as they demarcate fields with drainage ditches of sufficient depth and width to discourage sheep, cattle and horses from moving to the greener pastures. Each drainage ditch, in turn runs out to meet with a signficantly larger collector ditch, which in some places is twenty feet or more across. The dutch windmills which are the cliche of this country are actually intended to move water from the lowest ditches up in succession to higher ditches, and then finally near the sea, they pump water up and out into the north sea.