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  • Writer's pictureJay Hicks

Windy Day In Holland

I often wondered why windmills were so common in Holland. I had seen them on earlier visits and knew they were instrumental in capturing land from the sea. But on this past trip, the weather in Holland was very cold and very windy – and suddenly I understood why windmills are such a dominant feature in both Dutch history and their location.

Dike with Low Lands to Left, Canal to Right

During our recent trip to Amsterdam, the wind averaged 30 mph, often gusting to 50. The closer you were to the North Sea and the lakes, the faster the wind. By Florida standards, the temps were cold and the windchill was below freezing – too cold for this Florida boy. Go ahead and laugh, but the blood gets thin when you live south of Orlando.

We travelled to the village of Zaanse Schans, just north of Amsterdam, where we found a fantastic display of 8 working windmills. The working windmills varied in age, from the early 1700s. But most interesting is the fantastic maintenance that was required and performed throughout their life. The original windmills were built to lift water out of low-lying areas to rivers and then out to the ocean. Today, the windmills are still performing this task actively and are being used for grinding linseed and making flour.

You enter the windmill from a lower deck and can see the interior along with the grinding. However, most windmills allow you to climb up to a higher level and see more of the mechanical workings of the cogs and meshed screws. These are powered by the large blades known as sails which can be viewed outside the third floor. Watch closely as you move around the deck, as the sails could cause some damage.

The windmill we visited allowed us to go outside on a platformed deck and walk around the exterior of the windmill. The exterior walkway was essential so that the owner of the mill can maintain the sails and thatch roof. Part of the mechanical features include large bearings that allow for the windmill’s sails and turret to be turned as the wind shifts direction. This is an essential feature as the winds often change directions, even within the hour.

Perhaps most interesting is the fact is that much of Holland or the Netherlands was underwater at one point in time. The Dutch ancestors have been reclaiming land from the North Sea for over 2000 years. Innovative folk began using the Archimedes screw, an Egyptian invention, to lift water to the far side of the dikes and into canals. This allowed for the water to flow back to the sea. Planting reeds and tall grass initially allowed the land to dry. Later, cattle could be brought in to help nourish the soil.

Over the past 500 years, more than 20% of the Hollands land mass has been captured from the sea. Today, with much of the country below sea level, the average altitude of Holland is less than 90 feet, the lowest lying country in the world. However strong dikes have been built to help secure the country from the North Sea.

Captured lands since 1500 shown in lighter colors

If you ever fly to Amsterdam, you’ll land at Schiphol Airport. Schiphol Airport is 15 miles from the sea. Five hundred years ago, before being reclaimed, this corner of the inland sea was treacherous. For this reason, some believe the name Schiphol comes from Ships Hell or the Dutch Scheepshol, where 'hol' means grave. This area had ships that sank to the bottom of the lake. Hundreds of years later, as they began reclaiming the land and later still construction of the airport, they found several ships in the construction zone and the name stuck.

If you find yourself in Amsterdam, try to visit the countryside and see some of the working windmills. It will be a treat that you will remember for years.

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