Beemster Polder, The Netherlands
Once upon a time, all the land you see before you was just water. What is now fine green farmland was nothing but a huge lake, for want of a better description. Heaps and heaps of water, is probably a better way of putting it.
It’s a problem that The Netherlands has had to deal with for as long as anyone can remember. A third of the country is technically below sea level and if nothing had been done to control the spread of water, it’s estimated more than 60 per cent of the country would now be submerged. That’s perhaps nice if you like kayaking but not if you’re trying to feed your citizens.
And so it was that hundreds of years ago that the Dutch began the process of getting rid of the water so they could put the reclaimed land to good use. But that’s not something as easily done as said. This area, called the Beemster Polder, is the most famous example of how it was done.
In this area, fifteen networks of windmills were used to harness the power of the wind and operate large waterwheels which effectively lifted the water out of the lake and into canals that then drained it away.
This was happening to some degree as early as the fifteenth century for the smaller lakes but it was in the seventeenth century it was advanced enough to drain this whole area.
We’re talking here about a space as large as 70 km2 and, not surprisingly, it took a long time to drain the whole area with windmills. In fact, it took three years, to be exact, and the Beemster Polder was officially declared finished on the 19th of May 1612.
Visiting Beemster Polder
The elderly woman at the tourist information office looks a bit confused when I pop in to ask about the area. I get the feeling she doesn’t have many visitors at all – let alone unshaven young guys with a backpack and an Australian twang.
She apologises for her English (which is, of course, very good) and explains it’s been a long time since she’s had to use it. That says a lot about the state of tourism in Beemster.
The centre of the Polder is in the town of Middenbeemster and it’s a little tricky to get to without a car. From Amsterdam, you need to get a train for about half an hour and then wait for the (infrequent) bus to take you another 20 minutes or so up the road.
Middenbeemster is a beautiful little town, though, and seems popular with people on road trips. The central market square is the oldest part of town and has a few nice restaurants with outside areas for the warmer months. I still imagine it’s mainly the Dutch (or the curious nearby Europeans) who are venturing out here, though.
The houses in Middenbeemster are just gorgeous and most of them have their own little moat and drawbridge as access from the street. Although most of the water was drained hundreds of years ago, much still flows through the area’s canals, which act like veins across the countryside.
Beemster Polder’s plan
On that topic, it wasn’t just the incredible feat of turning water into land that makes the Beemster Polder such a special place. What came after was significant also because the plan for the way the land would be used was extremely innovative for the time.
These days we know it as ‘Renaissance planning principles’ but at the time the Dutch were just doing what seemed ideal to them.
The land was broken down into plots and then subplots; the roads were put together in a basic grid pattern; there were bylaws about the number of trees which could be planted; the roads were lined by particular trees; and canals followed the same paths as the roads to make access easier.
It’s remarkable enough that this land was reclaimed using technology from four hundred years ago. It’s an added bonus that the land has been used to create such a beautiful place to live and visit.