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, 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.
What is the Wouda Pumping Station?
The Wouda Pumping Station is a complex of machinery that is able to pump water at such a fast rate that it can clear the flooding in parts of Friesland to make new land habitable. Built in 1920, it helped open up parts of the Netherlands that had currently been submerged.
Why is the Wouda Pumping Station important?
The Wouda Pumping Station is the largest steam-powered pumping station ever built. It was added to the World Heritage List in 1998 partly because of the impressive engineering that was required to construct it, but also because of how it has helped change the face of the Netherlands.
Can you go inside the Wouda Pumping Station?
Even though the Wouda Pumping Station is still in use, it’s open to the public so you can see the architecture and learn about the engineering. You can visit independently or there are regular tours of the buildings.
The Wouda Pumping Station is on the edge of the Dutch city of Lemmer, a small residential centre in the north of the country. When it was built, it was just another battle in a long war between Holland and water.
Many of the World Heritage Sites in the Netherlands are about reclaiming land from water.
But here at the DF Wouda Pumping Station, there was a huge leap forward in the power of modern technology at the start of the 20th century.
History of the Wouda Pumping Station
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.
They were extremely innovative for their time but seemed old-fashioned (although still quite effective) by the time the Wouda Pumping Station was conceived.
A new type of power was going to revolutionise the industrial world – steam!
And steam power was going to be the new technology that would bring the Dutch husbandry of water into the twentieth century.
The Wouda Pumping Station was built at Lemmer between 1910 and 1920 and was named after Dirk Frederik Wouda, a Dutch hydraulic engineer.
It was not the first in the Netherlands – 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, a large area on the country’s north coast.
To be able to do this, it is powered by eight steam engines, driving eight pumps simultaneously. When it is at capacity, it’s capable of pumping 6 million m³ of water per day out into the sea. That allows it to drain an area of 1000 hectares in an hour!
Today, it still has the ability to do this, although it is rarely used to its capacity. This is mainly because a large body of water called Lauwerszee, which was a major source of flooding, was closed off in the 1960s.
Still, when there is flooding that needs some extra grunt, it’s the Wouda Pumping Station that comes to the rescue.
Now, much of it has been converted into a museum so that people can visit the Wouda Pumping Station and see this engineering marvel for themselves.
Things to see at the Wouda Pumping Station
A visit to the Wouda Pumping Station in Lemmer begins at the visitor centre, a large modern building to the side of the heritage areas.
Inside, there’s a museum covering a range of topics including the history of Frisian water management and the effects of climate change.
There’s also a very slick 3D movie which you can watch while you wait for a tour to start, as well as some interactive displays like VR glass where you can learn about the operations of the pumping station.
You can only go inside the main building on guided tours, which leave regularly from the modern visitor centre.
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.
Although my guide, a friendly retired engineer who volunteers here once a fortnight, could speak English perfectly well so we chatted and I asked questions.
Once inside, you’ll see the boiler house, which is where the coal is burned to hear the water that turns the steam engines.
The large machines were supplied by coal that was brought here on boats (again, using water to help!).
You’ll also get to see the machine hall, which is the largest room in the station and the heart of the operations.
It’s here you’ll find the eight steam engines and the eight pumps that do all the hard work.
I was even able to look into the apparatus where the water would be pushed through when the system was firing on all cylinders.
Back outside, it’s also worth taking note of the chimney, which is 70 metres high and the tallest structure at the pumping station – an important part of its heritage listing.
In fact, I should also mention that the building’s architecture is also significant so I recommend taking some time to look at it. Brick walls with their base decorated with multicoloured ceramic tiles show that the aesthetics were also important, not just the engineering.
And, once you’ve finished seeing the manmade structures, there are also some walking paths to see the scenery.
There a ‘landscape path’ that goes through a meadow or the ‘otterpad’ that goes through a swamp forest.
Visiting the Wouda Pumping Station
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 with a guided tour, but they run regularly and you normally don’t need to book. But you can buy tickets online to guarantee a spot for a specific time.
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.
There are also some suggestions here for how you can make it a longer driving journey or rent bikes to also see some of the surrounding area.
Where is Wouda Pumping Station?
Along the coast of IJsselmeer and Stroomkanaal, you can find the Wouda Pumping Station.
Wouda Pumping Station is located at Gemaalweg 1a, 8531 PS Lemmer, Netherlands. You can see it on a map here.
How do you get to Wouda Pumping Station?
To get to Wouda Pumping Station, catch a train to either Herenveen or Lelystad. Then the bus to Lemmer and from there another bus (line 47) to the stop “Lemmer, Ir. D.F. Woudagemaal”.
When is Wouda Pumping Station open?
Wouda Pumping Station opens at the following times:
April to October (and all school holidays) :
Tuesday to Saturday: 10:00 – 17:00
Sunday: 13:00 – 17:00
November and December, January to March 2024 :
Thursday to Saturday: 10:00 – 17:00
Sunday: 13:00 – 17:00
Closed on: New Year’s Day, Easter Monday, King’s Day, Whit Monday & Whit Monday, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.
What is the Wouda Pumping Station entrance fee?
The standard ticket for Wouda Pumping Station is €9.50 while young people (6 – 17 years) is €6. Children up to 5 years are free.
The visitor centre and Woudagemaal are accessible for wheelchairs and the disabled and you can have lunch in the polder landscape for €14.75 (adult meal) and €12.75 (kid’s meal).
Are there tours of Wouda Pumping Station?
Guided tours are offered continuously. The last tour starts at 16:00. Tours are spread 20 minutes apart.
For more information, see the official website of the Wouda Pumping Station website here.
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.
After touring the Wouda Pumping Station, the nearest place to dine at is the Eetcafé De Eerste Aanleg. It offers a unique on the water dining location and offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner.