Ir.D.F. Woudagemaal pumping station, Lemmer, The Netherlands
You probably wouldn’t even notice it if you were driving past. Just off the main street, a few hundreds metres down a small side road, is a brick building with what looks like a small lake in front of it.
If you look closely, you’ll notice that the building is elegantly designed, with a lovely symmetry and large windows between the bricks. From the outside, you would never know what is inside, though. Even if the sign on the building saying ‘Ir.D.F. Woudagemaal’ gave you a clue.
Inside this building are the mechanics of the largest steam-pump station ever built. It is a masterpiece of engineering and the most technologically advanced steam pumping station in the world. Most remarkable of all – it is still in use.
The Wouda Pumping Station is on the edge of the Dutch city of Lemmer, a small residential centre in the north of the country. The station was built in 1920 and was just another battle in a long war between Holland and water. Much of the Netherlands was once covered in water and was unusable for anything – but the country needed space for agriculture and for residential development.
A long process of removing the water and making the land habitable began centuries ago and I’ve written about some of the older techniques used at Kinderdijk and the Beemster Polder. They were extremely innovative for their time but seemed old-fashioned (although still quite effective) by the time the Wouda Pumping Station was conceived. Steam power was going to be the new technology that would bring the Dutch husbandry of water into the twentieth century.
The steam pumping station in Lemmer was not the first. The Dutch had started using steam to replace windmills in 1825 (a century earlier) and by the end of the 1800s there were about 700 of those pumps in operation across the country. They were much smaller, though, and hence were easier to design and build. The challenge with this new one was the sheer scale of it.
The reason the new pumping station had to be so large and powerful is because it was going to be a key part of preventing flooding in Friesland. It is capable of pumping 6 million m³ of water per day out into the sea. Today, it still has the ability to do this, although it’s generally only used in extreme situations when the other main pumping station in the area has reached capacity.
Visiting the Ir.D.F. Woudagemaal pumping station
So, because the Ir.D.F. Woudagemaal pumping station is technically operational, it is always being maintained so it is ready to go with very little notice. But because, in reality, it is rarely used, the whole compound is normally open for visitors.
You can only go inside as part of a guided tour but they leave regularly from the modern visitors centre that has been built next to the original building. The visitors centre has a museum and a very slick 3D movie which you can watch while you wait for a tour to start.
On the afternoon that I turned up – after walking for half an hour from the Lemmer bus station – there was just one last tour left. I was the only person there but that was not a problem and I got a personal look around the inside. The guide has a tablet with audio commentary in different languages for each spot along the tour, so you don’t need to be able to speak Dutch.
My guide, a friendly retired engineer who volunteers as a guide once a fortnight, could speak English perfectly well so we chatted and I asked questions. He showed me the huge boilers that produce the steam, explained how it then made its way to the pumps, and let me look into the apparatus where the water would be pushed through when the system was firing on all cylinders.
The Ir.D.F. Woudagemaal pumping station is fascinating. I always love seeing the industrial sites that are on the World Heritage List and marvelling at the scale of human invention. But it adds another level when the mechanics are housed in a building that has been designed with aesthetics – and not just function – in mind.
This World Heritage Site is a little out of the way and may not be something you would naturally pass by on a trip to the Netherlands but it is easy enough to access by public transport or car and is worth visiting.