KINDERDIJK (The Netherlands), March 12 — There is perhaps no symbol of Dutch identity and iconography more indelible than the humble windmill.
Why humble? Traditionally, beyond acting as mills to grind grain and saw wood, windmills in the Netherlands serve an essential purpose in pumping water out of the lowlands to create arable land.
A humble task, sure, but one that changes the entire landscape to one of grassy lowlands where cattle graze and a zigzag network of picturesque canals where a diverse ecosystem of waterbirds, fish and insect life call home. And there’s no better place to see this small miracle at work then at Kinderdijk.
The village of Kinderdijk is located in Alblasserwaard in South Holland, about 15 kilometres east of Rotterdam where the rivers Lek and Noord meet. Alblasserwaard is essentially a large area of “polders” — tracts of low-lying land reclaimed from the rivers and enclosed by dikes. During the 13th century, however, flooding became a problem even after weteringen (large canals) were dug to drain out the excess water.
To keep the polders dry, a series of 19 windmills were built in 1740 to pump water into a reservoir between the polders and the rivers. Thus one of the most successful and dramatic showcase of water management in the world was created.
Today, these 19 windmills make up the largest concentration of old windmills in all of the Netherlands, and are considered to be the most beautiful too. Recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site followed in 1997.
The fastest way to enjoy Kinderdijk’s windmills, dikes and sluices, scenic waterways and quaint canal houses is by bicycle. Rental bicycles are easily available and the windmill routes are an easy ride given how flat the land is. Hardcore cyclists even ride all the way to Kinderdijk from Rotterdam.
During the summer, you can even join a boat tour along the canal for a different view of the windmills. Prefer to go it alone? Canoeing is another option for seasoned paddlers. But for us, there is no better way to experience everything — from the windmills to the landscapes that surround them — than by foot. Walking is meditative; here well-trodden paths and small bridges connect one windmill to another.
If it all seems like a scene from a fairy tale, well, maybe it is. Kinderdijk is Dutch for “The Children’s Dike” and there is indeed a fable behind this name. Legend has it during the Saint Elizabeth flood in 1421, surrounding lands were flooded except for the Alblasserwaard polder.
After the flood waters had subsided, folks found a wooden cradle floating on the water, rocking back and forth gently as by an invisible hand. No hand it was but a cat in the cradle, leaping back and forth to keep it steady and afloat, protecting the precious cargo — a sleeping baby.
Fairy tales aside, on a clear day, when it’s not raining, the reflection of the windmills in the water is quite a sight to behold. So soothing... and a reminder of the magic that can happen when Man and Mother Nature meet halfway with mutual respect. The Dutch, we tell ourselves, have a love for the land and the waters we don’t often see elsewhere.
The verdant meadows that exist thanks to the polders are grazing grounds for cattle and horses; the former are dairy cattle, typically the famous Dutch breed of Holstein Friesians, favoured for their rich milk that is in turn used to make Gouda cheese. But it’s not only domestic beasts that thrive here.
Living amongst the thick reeds and beneath the flowering lily pads are all manner of wildlife — birds and bees and butterflies. Kinderdijk is a haven for waterbirds such as the white-beaked Eurasian Coots that nest in reeds along canals.
A flurry of flapping wings and it’s a sign a coot has just landed on the water or captured some small fish for supper.
Mallard ducks — the males, with their bright green heads and yellow beaks, are easily distinguished from the more drab and brown females — abound; so do the larger and more majestic swans, though to a lesser degree.
Not every waterfowl appears in a burst of activity; the ever-patient Grey Herons stand like statues whilst hunting their prey by the water’s edge.
At the end of a long day of walking, we stumble upon a tiny wooden pier beneath a tree, probably used for a landing stage for the canal boats. The pier overlooks a windmill, of course; nearly every point of interest in Kinderdijk does.
Here’s a place to rest and contemplate life, we tell ourselves. Nothing to do but observe the ripples on the water and overhear the whispers of the animals and birds whose home we momentarily intrude upon.
A water insect skips across the surface of the canal, gliding by using nothing more than water tension.
What a tranquil sanctuary this is! And all thanks to the windmills. The very act of moving water from wetlands across the dikes, returning them to the rivers, is proof that the hand of Man can shape our world into a more beautiful place. May such beauty last for years and years to come.
Transport by land can be time-consuming. The easiest way to get to Kinderdijk is via the Waterbus ferry (Route 20) from Rotterdam, with a seamless transfer at Ridderkerk (De Schans). A one-way trip takes 35 minutes. Get the special day ticket (return trip) at €12.95 (RM61) for adults and €9 (RM43) for children.