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The land and seascapes of Zeeland

By Gery de Pierpont

The unending struggle against the influx of water

Zeeland – land reclaimed from the sea – is aptly named. Old maps of the area show a radically different aspect of this part of the Netherlands, and are unrecognizable for anyone trying to match the old contours with the new. There is not the smallest cliff along its coastline to protect the land from the ravages of the North Sea – quite the opposite. The low gradient of its foreshore is no barrier against the incoming waves constantly crashing against the dune ridges and tearing away great chunks of land. Zeeland is a region inextricably linked to the sea. Much of the submerged ground that is cultivated today, has been hard won through centuries of intensive work on a system of polderization undertaken with courage and determination.

Zeeland_tourism

An idyllic landscape – a ‘patchwork’ of land and water – Middelburg © Wouter de Bruijn

The countryside seen from the main roads is made up of rectilinear strips of farm land as if laid out with builders’ string lines. The landscape’s only relief are the dykes that separate the plots and isolate them from the coast. These squared-off areas known as polders have existed for centuries, and they are criss-crossed by small trenches that still serve to drain the water from the land. Until relatively recently, the soil was sandy and poor, but enriched by supplies of algae, and tilled by generation after generation of farmers, it has become a source of agricultural wealth for the mostly urbanized Netherlands.

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Stretches of polders – a victory over the sea © Wouter de Bruijn

Separating the land from the water

According to the Book of Genesis, the world was created in the same way as Zeeland – by separating the land from the sea; only here, it was human endeavour that resulted in the birth to a country. The first concentrated effort to construct dykes and enrich cultivable soil dates back to the seventh century.

By the 16th and 17th centuries, polderization entered a new phase and became even more actively developed. From being a defensive system, it now became extensive. Little by little, Zeeland was beginning to take shape. The windmills that were scattered across the countryside were used, more often than not, as drainage pumps. Every square metre gained, was a victory for agriculture and urban development. Every ditch carried that water from the soil, and every breakwater, so painstakingly maintained, protected the seaboard.

Polder

Plan of a polder (1658) in Beemster, showing the characteristic orthogonal grid – Daniël van Breen

The protection against incursion

Zeeland has many artificial mounds, or terps (also known as wierden), which were probably the foundations for defensive keeps, or for motte-and-bailey constructions which were common in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Ringdorp

The concentric village of Dreischor © Gemeente Schouwen-Duiveland

Similarly, circular villages or ringdorpen were built where the houses on the perimeters served as defensive walls. Surrounded by the cemetery and sometimes a moat, the church raised on a promontory (or on stable ground) stood at the centre of the village. The houses, built in concentric circles around it, radiated outwards. Souburg, dating back to the Carolingian era, is typical of a fortified village constructed to resist Viking raids; and Dreischor, one of Zeeland’s prettiest ringdorpen, is another example of these medieval conglomerations.

Laying the foundations for modern towns

Voorstraten in Oud-Beijerland

Voorstraten in Oud-Beijerland

By the time the Renaissance had taken hold, the ringdorpen had served their purpose and new villages sprang up in areas reclaimed from the sea. These were typified by wide avenues, or voorstraten that were perpendicular to the dykes, and which again, led to the church at the centre of the village. It was now in the village centres where the grandest buildings were to be found, as the ground was higher and geologically more stable than on the village outskirts or on the coast.

Modestly proportioned maisonettes in Dreischor © FaceMePLS

Modestly proportioned maisonettes in Dreischor © FaceMePLS

Today, the coastal village houses are really quite small – for many reasons: they are certainly cosy – so perhaps for economy (although very often, the owner of these bijou residences will also own one of the pleasure boats that overpopulate the marinas); it could also be for discretion – an inherent Protestant legacy that decrees against the vulgarity of flaunting one’s wealth; but it is mainly because the ground, quite simply, will not support large, heavy structures.

The kingdom of bricks

Westhove

Westhove Castle, with traditional brick walls © Vincent Brassinne

Brick is a wonderful material for building on sandy soil with little stone. Even medieval Romanesque and Gothic churches were constructed with brick rather than cut stone (which had to be imported from great distances). However it was not as hardy and its porosity made it victim to floods, rising damp and subsidence. Consequently, only a few, yet admirable, vestiges remain. For example, at Nieuwerkerk (New church), an attractive village just a few kilometres from Zierikzee, there is a rather disconcerting edifice. After the collapse of its nave, only the bell tower and the choir of the ancient church survived; they were preserved by linking the two parts with an ultra-modern unit.
Just a short step away, on the other side of the main road that crosses Schouwen-Duiveland Island, Ouwerkerk (Old church), which is named after an even older building, is even more intriguing. But the original church was in such a state of ruin that it has been completely replaced by a modern, glassed-in, decagonal construction.

The endless struggle against water

Sometimes, the work undertaken to keep the sea at bay was not always successful. A few villages have disappeared, swallowed up for ever by the waters, and only vestiges, such as the Plompetoren (Plompe tower) of Kouderkerk in the Burgh-Haamstede region, can be seen. Standing on the edge of an empty expanse, the tower of this ancient church is a landmark that overlooks the entire bay between Westenschouwen and Zierikzee. The village itself, submerged in the 16th century, is a great attraction for divers. The tower has been restored and houses a free information centre where one can learn about the history, the legends, and the biodiversity of the area. From the top of the tower, there is a panoramic view of the Oosterschelde estuary and a branch of the River Scheldt that flows into the North Sea. In the distance, Zeelandbrug’s elegant and diaphanous silhouette outlines the boundary between land and open sea.

Plomptoren_Kouderkerk

Plompetoren – Koudekerk’s lonely survivor © Geneviève Lacroix

Westenschouwen

Les poneys des dunes de Westenschouwen © Ramon Sigma

Westenschouwen was another coastal village, of which not a trace remains except in memory. The fine sandy beach, part of an unending strand, is bordered by high dunes planted with hardy shrubs whose roots work ceaslessly to retain the sand. This ridge of dunes is backed up by pine forests that were grown in the 19th century, where in summer or winter, it is pleasant to stroll. In true Dutch tradition, it is not only welcoming, but signposted and well organized into cycle paths, trails for walkers, bicycle parking areas, and bridle paths in among the dunes for riders. Glimpses of distant views through the pines, their position, and their heady essence, combine to make a walk through the forest a magical and peaceful experience within a protected universe. Wild animals feel at home. Forest and sea birds mix freely. Deer put up with horses, and herds of wild ponies maintain a natural, protected area all year round.

Walcheren

Zeeland wild fauna © Cindy de Bree

Zeeland

Pine forest at sunset © Geneviève Lacroix

When nothing can hold back the waves …

Zeeland has been flooded and obliterated, more than once and the effects of these deluges are anchored firmly in the collective memory. In 1953, Zeeland had barely recovered from the Second World War, and to some extent, the dykes and their infrastructure had been neglected. On the night of the first of February, the region was hit by a storm and all the reclaimed land was once again annihilated by a catastrophic chain of events. The first dyke gave way under the assault of the waves, followed inexorably by the others with domino effect – one after the other.

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Broken dycke in Alblasserwaard © Papendrecht

It would take ten months – up to November of the same year – to seal off the last of the breached dykes. A chain of concrete caissons, relics from the floating wharfs made after the Normandy landings in 1944, were used to form an artificial shoreline, which allowed time for the inland defences to be reinforced. But several more years were needed to get rid of the sand, the mud, and the debris which had devastated the countryside, the villages and the agricultural land. The tragedy has remained engraved in the minds of the Dutch, and the word ramp (catastrophe) forever associated with the flood of 1953, needs no explanation.

Fresh, affluent and neat as a pin, Zeeland’s prosperity today, is in direct response to the insecurity, the loss, and the destruction brought about by repeated flooding. The Watersnood museum at Ouwerkerk was created as a memorial in one of the caissons used in 1953.

The Watersnoods museum in Ouwekerk © Bertknot

The Watersnoods museum in Ouwekerk © Bertknot

To round off the visit, a long walk along the seashore, the Strijd tegen het water route will take you past the places most symbolic of that terrible struggle to fight back the water. You will see the remains of the rescue work, such as the caissons that served as artificial harbours while the work was carried out.

The Delta Works and the Zeeland bridge

Delta Plan Zeeland

Repairs after the storm © Erik Schepers

Zeeland is now completely locked in by the Delta Works, a magisterial engineering feat consisting of a combination of dykes, storm surge barriers, and bridges, which facilitate traffic between the islands, and regulate the tides as well as river waters. An excellent spin off from these works is that you can visit one of the most iconic barriers ever constructed, and an educational activities park for children awaits you on Neeltje Jans Island.

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The imposing storm surge barrier at Oosterscheldedam © Rens Jacobs

Where to stay?

The ideal starting point from which to discover all Zeeland’s features is Zierikzee, on Schouwen-Duiveland Island. Its harbour, its old towers, its museums, and its history are the perfect introduction to all your expeditions in the region. You may even find a room and a warm welcome at the Monumentaal Logeren B&B, so typical of the architecture of the Dutch Golden Age.

Zierikzee

Zierikzee and its old haven entrance © Geneviève Lacroix

Comments

Kim A. Hazel

27-11-2015

This is a good explanation for the landscape I could see from the train as I traveled from Brussels to Amsterdam. I saw grazing cows in fields small paddocks separated by drainage ditches and a little strip of gated land between them. I assume that was where they moved the cows to a different paddock. Thanks for explaining polders.

Even though I live in the province right next to Zeeland (Noord Brabant), I still feel like being on holiday whenever I visit Zeeland. It's quite different from the rest of the country. You were able to sketch a good image of it, well done!

Monique

16-05-2015

J'ai beaucoup aimé toutes vos explications sur la Zélande, voilà dix ans que nous y allons chaque mois de juin et sillonnons les lieux à vélo, je constate qu'il nous reste encore beaucoup de magnifiques coins à découvrir.
Autre sujet, demain nous partons, à vélo, à la recherche du barrage de Bernistap.
____________________
Merci pour ce commentaire. Je vous souhaite bien d'autres découvertes en Zélande !
Quand au tunnel de Bernistap et à toute l'histoire du Canal de Meuse et Moselle - fascinante épopée en Ardenne - je suppose que vous avez déjà pu jeter un coup d'oeil au site que je leur ai consacré : http://larivierecontrariee.com/le-canal-de-meuse-et-moselle/
Vous trouverez le résultat des dernières recherches historiques au sujet de cette aventure sur ce site : https://canalmeusemoselle.wordpress.com/
Bonne immersion au début du 19e siècle,
Gery de Pierpont

Geneviève

03-04-2015

Merci Cindy ! J'ai moi aussi beaucoup d'admiration pour l'esprit constructif et respectueux de la nature avec lequel les Néerlandais ont mis en valeur leur territoire. Le bois et le torchis sont également des matériaux millénaires très utilisés dans la région, surtout pour les constructions agricoles maintenant.
et quant aux bateaux traditionnels, leur belles voiles rouges à l'horizon, déployées sur fonds de mer ou de prairie, sont un enchantement !

Geneviève.

Bonjour Cindy, merci pour votre message. C'est vrai que les bateaux à fond plat, adaptés aux canaux et eaux peu profondes de l'estuaire du Rhin et de l'Escaut, ne peuvent se permettre d'avoir une quille... Les dérives latérales sont réglables en hauteur.
Quant à la brique, c'est le matériau de construction par excellence aux Pays-Bas parce qu'il y a très peu de roches utilisables en construction dans le sous-sol (essentiellement constitué d'argile, de sable et de tourbe). Les pierres de taille doivent donc être importées de loin.
Vous connaissez bien la Zélande ?

Cindy

01-04-2015

Le plat pays... mais à la population courageuse et méthodique. Article très intéressant : je ne savais pas que la brique était le matériau de construction privilégié.
Les bateaux traditionnels (comme ceux sur la dernière photo) sont des Tjalks: a fond plutôt plat, ils sont adaptés à la navigation en eau douce (rivières, fleuves, canaux). On les reconnaît aux dérives latérales (grands panneaux de bois qui sont abaissés dans l'eau lorsqu'il navigue).

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