Northern Holland

Thursday 2nd October 2008, Schoorl, Northern Holland
Although this is our first visit to Holland with Modestine, we have been here before, many years ago, and have friends with whom we are still in contact. Jill first met Harry as a student back in the late 1960s. We have been invited to visit him and his wife Jacqui in their home near Utrecht in a few days time, once we have explored this part of the country.

In the past, for library school students, part of the training involved working throughout the summer on placement in a major library. Normally it was assumed students would work within the UK library system but this was not actually stipulated and working in Holland sounded much more exciting. At that time Croydon, where I lived, was offering an annual bursary, the Frank Denning Award, for a student to undertake research abroad in the sciences. I applied for this and somehow succeeded, right back in 1969, in convincing the interview panel that librarianship was the science of information management. I had already been offered a provisional six-week placement in the Royal Library in the Hague and my acceptance was dependent on receiving sufficient funding to cover my expenses.

Harry organised accommodation in one of the student houses at the University of Leiden where he was studying chemistry. The Royal Library was superb, arranging for me to work on the cataloguing of their English rare book collections and organising a brilliant study tour of the Netherlands for me, covering libraries in Rotterdam, Utrecht, Delft, Haarlem and Amsterdam. I'm ashamed to say I feigned illness on 21 July 1969, the day I should have visited the Rotterdam Technical Library. It was the day after Neil Armstrong landed on the moon and I'd been up all night watching it with Dutch students.

Since then, our lives have gone in very different directions but we have stayed in touch. Our last visit to Holland was with our children, both under ten and much the same age as Harry's children. It will be interesting to catch up on the intervening years.

Back to today. We really have had enough of this perpetual rain! It's the last thing we hear at night as we drift off to sleep and the first thing that greets us when we wake in the morning. It hasn’t stopped for more than a few minutes all day! It’s not your gentle, refreshing stuff either. It’s a slashing, hammering, “I’m going to flood these damned Dutch dykes” type rain. To you we may seem obsessed but when it’s been days since we could shake or air the bedding and weeks since we last had chance to do any proper laundry, and the floor in Modestine's kitchen area is awash, and we have no dry shoes, we do get rather depressed by it all. Still, as there is nothing we can do about it we will simply carry on as best we can.

We have moved on from Dokkum. Our plan was to visit Leeuwarden, just twenty five kilometres on. Signs directed us all the way around the ring road to the “Park and Ride” but when we eventually arrived it was no more than an expensive city centre car park that required a credit card to enter. After trying in vain to find convenient and safe on-street parking nearby gave up and moved on to the smaller town of Sneek in south-west Friesland. Here we were immediately drenched as we made our way across the swing bridges and alongside the canals towards the town centre.

Sneek is a pleasant Dutch town though not as picturesque as many, due to post war development. The old town is ringed by canals and lined with terraces of gabled houses. Of particular interest is the water gate down near the little port area.

Water gate, Sneek

Cheese shop, Sneek

There is little charm to be found in exploring a town in such weather so we left the cobbled streets and sought shelter for lunch in a café offering the Dutch traditional meal of uitsmijter, eaten either as an ample breakfast or for lunch. It comes as a large slice of Dutch corn bread topped with ham, bacon, red peppers and onions and three fried eggs, all snuggling beneath a blanket of melted Gouda cheese, served with a side salad. It’s a very sustaining meal, particularly on a chilly wet October day where the wind whistles in across the flat polderlands straight from the North Sea.

Uitsmijter, Sneek

Our next stop was at the pretty coastal village of Makkum. Apart from its harbour and several streets of charming, “dolls houses” spreading out from the central square, it is important as the home of Tichelaar, one of the largest tile and ceramics manufacturers in the Netherlands. We took shelter in the spacious, opulent showroom browsing the wide ranging tableware and ornaments for sale. Started in 1594, it claims to be the oldest business in the Netherlands and rivals Delft in the quality of its products. As well as traditional blue and white tiles it also produces a range of multi-coloured hand painted craft ceramics. Their quality is reflected in the high prices but at least it cost nothing to look and dream.

Characteristic scene in Makkum

Cycling through the rain, Makkum

Canalside scene, Makkum

Traditional Dutch tiles, Tichelaar factory, Makkum

Typical hand painted products, Tichelaar factory, Makkum

It was time to cross the 30 kilometre long Afsluitdijk across the top of Holland. This dyke forms a major part of the country's drainage system, holding back the sea, providing reclaimed land where crops and flowers are grown commercially and sheep and cattle are grazed. It has also turned the landward side of the dyke into a vast fresh water lake, the IJsselmeer. Before the construction of the dyke this whole area, then known as the Zuider Zee, was beneath the North Sea with nothing but a string of lonely Friesian islands to break the force of the waves. The construction of the dyke was not without controversy and many fishing villages have ended up well inland, their livelihood gone.

Sculpture commemorating the completion of the Afsluitdijk

The lands all around this area are reclaimed polders, laid out in neat, rectangular fields. Any slight rise in the landscape was almost certainly once an island in the sea. The achievement and determination of the Dutch people to challenge the sea, claiming back from it land it had previously stolen, is remarkable. Holland was an occupied country during the War and, three weeks before it finally surrendered, Germany opened the dykes, flooding the polders, claiming it had the power to return Holland to the sea. Everything was destroyed and after the war the land had to be drained, cleaned and completely replanted.

Grey is the colour of our afternoon. We drove up onto the massive dyke and headed out across the water. To our left the immense slate grey lake of the IJsselmeer, to our right the equally grey waters of the North Sea. Soon we were so far out we had lost all sight of land except for the grey black ribbon of wet tarmac along the dyke stretching out into the misty grey distance. Overhead the leaden grey-black clouds of a Ruysdael sky wrapped around to become one with the waters on either side.

Half way across is the point where the dyke was finally closed. Here we stopped to gaze around us in awe. With our binoculars we could just discern a couple of church spires far across the IJsselmeer while on the seaward side several fishing trawlers were returning to port. Braving the weather we crossed to the observation tower and climbed to the top. Modestine looked very small and vulnerable, buffeted by the strong wind and the rain as she waiting patiently for us. We were only too happy to return to her warmth and continue to the far side of the dyke.

Modestine waits in the rain on the Afsluitdijk

Midway across the Afsluitdijk,

So many of the things we wanted to do are impractical in the wet. So we decided against going to Den Helder, a naval town to the very north of Holland, or out to the Friesian island of Texel. Instead we turned south towards Alkmaar, still hoping the weather will improve tomorrow. Many campsites closed at the end of September so we just have to stay where we can find anywhere open. Tonight we are almost alone on what in dryer weather would be a pretty site at the base of a traditional Dutch windmill. The campsite lady tells us her daughter is married to an Englishman and lives in Chulmleigh, near Exeter. As soon as the season is ended she is off to spend the winter in Devon. With so few people here she has agreed to let us camp on the tarmac driveway rather than risk getting bogged down on the mud if we use the grass.

Modestine's neighbour on the campsite, Schoorl

Friday 3rd October 2008, Schoorl, North Holland
Well we are still here and it is still raining. We'd convinced ourselves the weather would be better today and we'd be able to cycle across the polders to Alkmaar, famous for its cheese market held in the market square every Friday. Is there such a phenomenon as psychic rain? We think there must be as it slumbers peacefully until we need to go somewhere when it rushes back, anxious not to miss anything. Today it really pulled out all the stops, determined to wreck our plans. It started with thunder, lightning and heavy rain, working itself up into such a frenzy it turned into a violent hail storm that went on for so long ice built up on Modestine's windscreen and covered the surrounding campsite with a carpet of hailstones that looked like granules of polystyrene. There was no point in trying to do anything in such weather as we'd only get soaked just trying to pack up and store away the bikes and outside furniture that live on the front seats while we use the back.

View from Modestine's window, Schoorl

After the hailstorm, Schoorl

The weather was exhausted after such a tantrum and went off for a rest. Seizing the chance we donned hiking boots and waterproof jackets for a stroll in the village. We never got that far as we met a bus going to Alkmaar and jumped on board. It dropped us in the town centre fifteen minutes later and since then we've had a lovely day. Whenever the rain appeared, we disappeared – into a shop, museum or café.

It is so wet in Holland even the coots have taken to cardboard rafts on the canals to keep their feet dry, Alkmaar

The countryside of Holland is wide, flat and generally rather empty, cut across by countless canals with church spires and windmills offering the occasional point of interest against the huge expanse of ominously billowing clouds. The towns though, are amongst the most beautiful and picturesque to be found anywhere in Europe. We are led to wonder why they do not seem to charm the tourists in the same way that Venice does. In Holland there are countless such towns and cities, all with their gabled houses, waterways, swing bridges, barges, sailing boats and bicycles. They are not dependent upon tourism to survive and the shops are filled with the requirements of ordinary citizens going about their daily lives rather than souvenirs for tourists. It's undeniable though that Alkmaar's museums concentrate on such prosaic matters as cheese, beer and cast iron cooking stoves rather than the paintings of the grand masters of the Renaissance that are to be found in Venice.

Swing bridge on one of Alkmaar's canals

Alkmaar, not Venice

Gabled shopfront, Alkmaar

Façade above the shops, Alkmaar

Ian wanted to follow a town trail that took in all the main sites. I prefer to wander the streets absorbing the atmosphere and don't necessarily mind if I'm unaware of the historic events associated with every building of note. Today we were both happy. There was just so much to see and enjoy everywhere and we were able to wander from the trail to investigate interesting corners, picking up the trail again a few streets further on.

17th century Fish market, Alkmaar

Weighhouse of the famed Alkmaar cheese market, now a cheese museum

Outside the 17th century town hall building a crowd of school children were gathered, singing loudly and holding an arch of flowers at the foot of the steps, as their class teacher came out from the registry office with her new husband! What a lovely idea, giving the children time off school to see Teacher get married.

Town Hall, Alkmaar

Wedding scene, Alkmaar

Holland has so many lovely foods to try we need to limit ourselves to a treat a day. Today's was Dutch apple cake with whipped cream served with cups of really good coffee. The accompanying cinnamon and almond biscuits were a bonus.

We visited the library hoping to use the internet. Unfortunately it would not permit us to upload our photos. By the time we'd puzzled out how it all worked in Dutch we'd wasted half of our allotted time but did at least manage to read our emails, including one from an American charity wanting to use our recent photos of St. Nicholas church in Wismar for a website they run about Father Christmas!! It appears they collect photos of churches world-wide named after the saint.

We pottered further around the side streets and canal sides with their subsiding, uneven, drunken 17th century warehouses that seem to defy the laws of gravity. They stand sometimes five stories high topped by a gable supporting a winch. This was originally used to load and unload cargoes from the boats moored on the canal below. The cargoes would then be raised up and passed into the warehouse through doors on each floor. Staircases in all the Dutch buildings we have seen, even modern ones, seem very steep and narrow by our standards.

Back at the bus station we had the same bus driver going back who remembered us and issued us with our tickets before Ian even attempted to ask. The homeward journey took longer than expected because of the rush hour. The rain teemed down for most of the journey but had subsided by the time we reached the village of Schoorl. Indeed, we'd almost walked back to the campsite before it realised it had missed us. Back it rushed and in a couple of seconds had soaked us through, so we've been sharing Modestine with umbrellas, dripping jackets and soggy hiking boots all evening. Satisfied with a job well done, the rain has settled to a gentle drizzle for the night, no doubt saving its energies for a further onslaught tomorrow.