There’s a saying in the Netherlands that I quite like: “God created the earth, but the Dutch made Holland.”
It refers of course to how much of the Netherlands is reclaimed land. Netherlands (or Nederland) means “Low Countries,” which it is. About half of the country lies barely a metre above sea level, and a quarter of the country is reclaimed land that would flood if not for the dykes. The larger areas of reclaimed land are called polders.
Reclaiming land from the sea involves an intricate drainage system of dykes, canals, and pumps. In days gone by, windmills were the pumps.
And that’s the lesson you learn when you visit Kinderdijk. This UNESCO World Heritage site is home to 17 windmills that have been pumping water for almost three hundred years. They were supplemented by steam pumps during the nineteenth century, and then, in the last century, they were replaced by electrical pumps.
But now the windmills — the largest concentration of old mills in the Netherlands — remain as a living museum.
Kinderdijk means “children’s dyke” and there are a number of stories about how the name came to be. The one I like best is a simple one: the dyke that was lower than the surrounding dykes was smaller, like a child, and became known as the Kinderdijk.
The Kinderdijk windmills are called “ground sailers” because the sails almost reach the ground. I expect it was a risky business, living in a windmill, as one wrong step could easily end your life.
There are three kinds of windmills at Kinderdijk. The Nederwaard mills (at right in the photo below) were built in 1738 and are made of brick, except for their caps, which are thatched. This cap can be turned, which allows the miller to move the sails so they face the wind. The mills are staggered to make sure they do not steal the wind from the sails of the other mills. One of them has been turned into a museum, furnished as it was during the 1950s when the last miller lived there.
I learned there is nothing quite like the sound of being inside a windmill as its sails turn. Let’s just say there was a whole lot of creaking going on.
The Overwaard mills (at left in the photo above) were built in 1740. They are thatched mills and are not staggered because they are spaced further apart.
The last type of windmill is a wipmolen (hollow post mill), which is the oldest type of windmill in the Netherlands. There is just one of these at Kinderdijk and it too has been turned into a museum.
The wipmolen can also be rotated, which is exactly what this miller is doing.
If you want to see windmills in the Netherlands, Kinderdijk is where you need to be. It is easily accessible from Rotterdam by bus or waterbus and can done as a day trip from Amsterdam.
And if the wind is blowing, as it was when we were there, be assured you will see many of the mills in action.