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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.