Kinderdijk – A Brief History of a Dutch Polder

Europe, Netherlands

Everyone knows that much of the Netherlands lies below sea level. After all, “Nether” means the lowlands. But was it always below sea level? And should I be nervous knowing that only a dyke lies between me and a salty swim ?

  • Start of Day: [1] Erasmusbrug Ferry Terminal, Rotterdam
  • Cost of Day Out: Moderate
  • History Content: Low

If this was the 15th century, I’d be waiting for a boat in a place called the Low Countries. This was how the 17 provinces of the Duchy of Burgundy (modern day Netherlands and Belgium) were referred to then.

Erasmus Bridge in Rotterdam, in Modern Netherlands today, in the Low Countries Centuries Ago

When the Romans invade this area two millennia ago, the land was much higher. It was swampy though, as after all, this is the delta through which the River Rhine winds its way through multiple distributaries towards the North Sea.

Swans Swim on the River Lek, One of the Many Distributaries of the Rhine

If I go back a few more millennia to when the ice age ended, peat and water loving fauna, such as moss, start accumulating in this wet marshland. It forms a soft, fertile, waterlogged layer above sea level.

A Layer of Moss and Peat Starts to Form on Land

My story is interrupted as I arrive at Ridderkerk to swap onto the [2] Driehoksveer ferry. It’s rather refreshing to board somthing that isn’t the efficient and punctual Dutch public transport system. The ferry kind of departs around 10:30ish. Only cash is accepted for tickets.

On the Laidback Driehoeksveer Ferry for the Short Hop between Ridderkerk and Kinderdijk

Back to the story of the polder…..People begin to farm. By the 1300’s, the earls of Holland and the bishops of Utrecht have handed out much of their lands to wealthy farmer landlords. With all trees eventually cleared, peat becomes a popular source of fuel.

Windmills now Stand Where Trees Once Stood

The ferry drops me off at the entrance of [3] Kinderdijk, a Unesco World Heritage Sight and a very popular tourist destination. I walk away from the hordes, along the peaty banks of the dykes. The land beneath my feet is generally oxygen free, which is why peat stays in its decomposed state for many years.

I Discover that Much of the Netherlands is Covered in Peat. And It Lives in an Oxygen Free Environment

Cultivation and digging, on the other hand, introduces oxygen to the land. And just like the organic matter in my composter at home, as it rots in its oxygenated environment, the land mass reduces.  And the Netherlands begins to sink.

The Land Begins to Sink as Vast Areas Are Dug Up

Inner parts of the Netherlands drop below sea level. These are known as polders. However, up until the 16th century, the capability does not exist to drain water on a large scale from the polders.

The Polders Being Farmed on Are Now Susceptible to Flooding

It’s not surprising therefore, that in November 1421, a terrible storm wreaks havoc for the city of Dordrecht nearby. Vast areas of polders disappear underwater for decades. When I visit Dordrecht (my Dordrecht blog), I learn just how devastating this was for the city.

Windmills are a Common Sight in the Netherlands for Good Reason

With the advent of the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th century, wealth and technology results in the start of large scale construction of windmills for pumping water from these polders. This reduces the risk of floods and further erosion of much needed arable land.

The Windmills of the Kinderdijk are Built in 1740

I’ve heard about the formidable network of sand dunes, dikes, ditches, dams, canals and windmills that prevents the Netherlands from flooding. At the Kinderdijk, I get the chance to see how the windmills contribute towards this.

Windmills Form Part of the Flood Defences of the Low Lying Netherlands

To escape from the masses, I head to the [4] Museummolen Blokweer, which is the furthest away from the entrance. This museum explains how windmills, ditches and sluices draw water from the polders into the River Lek which lies above the polders.

Some of the Windmills at the Kinderdijk have been Converted to Museums

Windmills also double up as living quarters. Many of the windmills in the Kinderdijk are still occupied today. From a distance I can see washing hanging out and people going about their day to day.

The Museummolens at the Kinderdijk Recreate How Families Live in a Windmill

Any water lover would enjoy the Netherlands. There are so many ditches and canals around, that nearly every Dutch household seems to possess a water vehicle of some kind. At the Kinderdijk, I relish the chance of walking between the ditches that I often see from my trains and bus journeys.

Locals Travelling by Boat Across the Kinderdijk is an Everyday Occurence

As for the birds, they absolutely thrive in this environment. Ducks, geese, coots, swans, herons and grebes keep me company on land. I enjoy the sound of birds having fun in the water and the smells from the nearby farm.

Water Loving Birds Are Everywhere in the Kinderdijk

Dutch history is littered with many destructive floods. The storms of 1280 and 1362 create new seas in the Netherlands. The one in 1703 is quite epic. And the list  goes on. After the 1953 storms, where 1800 people perish, the Dutch start to take flood defences to heart.

Windmills Are Used Extensively by the Dutch Who are World Renowned for Their Water Management Systems

I bravely head back to the [5] Museummolen Nederwaard near the entrance. Time starved package tourists make a beeline for this museum during their short stopover. At this windmill, I’m introduced to a Dutch family of 12 children who once lived in this tall, narrow, building.

The Family that Used to Live in the Museummolen Nederwaard

I get a first-hand experience of how cramped the living quarters are, thanks to the scores of tourists trying to squeeze into the little chambers across two floors. Fortunately, I get some respite when they are recalled back to their luxurious and spacious cruise ship moored up on the Lek.

I Finally get an Unobstructed View Out of a Window in the Windmill

However one fellow tourist does make an astute observation. The blades outside are so close to the window. With sails on, they must sweep past loudly. And the enormous square heavy wooden column inside must groan and creak terribly as it twists with the rotation.

It Must Be Very Noisy Living in a Working Windmill

The best way to appreciate anything so vast is always from the outside.  I make my way out to the main road. I climb onto the [5] dyke that separates the River Lek from the polders of the Kinderdijk.

The Dyke Protecting the Kinderdijk Polders from the River Lek

From my vantage position, I can see the entire complex of windmills at the Kinderdijk. At one point I thought I could count 20. An overcount on my part, as their website states that there are only 19 !! Suffice to say that there are a lot of windmills in the vicnity.

The Kinderdijk Complex from my Vantage Point along the Dyke on the Main Road

And so I return to Rotterdam on the river again. The story of water in the Netherlands is fascinating. Today I’ve seen how the Dutch extract water out from the polders. But there have been times when water has been deliberately pumped back into the polders, a story that will take me to Schoonhoven tomorrow.

Useful Information

  • Waterbus from Rotterdam to the Kinderdijk (website) – timetable planner for Line #20 plus  timetable for the Driehoeksveer ferry, schedule for the direct ferry  #202,
  • Trains to Rotterdam (Netherlands Rail website) – the online planner has times and fares
  • Buses to Kinderdijk, Molenkade bus stop – #90 from Utrecht Centraal Jaarbeurszijde, #93 from Rotterdam Zuidplein (perron V). Bus stop on Google Map displays the timetable
  • OV Chipkaart (website) – the annonymous Chipkaart is accepted on the Waterbus.
  • Kinderdijk Museums (website) – The Kinderdijk complex is public throughfare and therefore free. Tickets are only required for the museums. There are bicycles for hire at the entrance. The boat ride is a rather tame affair.
  • Go early to avoid the tour groups.

 

 

 

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