Robert’s trip to Netherlands and Essex
Angela and I visited The Netherlands at the end of the northern hemisphere spring, specifically to see the flowers at Keukenhof. We also took the opportunity to view some of the remaining windmills that Holland was so famous for. These windmills were not only used for centuries to drive Archimedes Screw systems to lift water from the low-lying areas into the canals and dams, but were also used for commercial milling of corn, barley, rice, mustard, flour, pigments and dyestuffs, lime and many other products, and for driving saw mills for cutting timber. They were responsible for developing an entire industrial area, which made the Zaan district the oldest industrial area in the world. Now only a few windmills are still in operation, and some can be seen at Zaanse Schans, which is picturesque and it is interesting to see these ancient windmills, with wooden cogs, wooden spindles and drive shafts, still operating, but unfortunately the area has become a tourist trap.
I also wanted to see how the Dutch have managed to keep the ocean at bay (for most of the time) using dykes. 3000 years ago houses were built on top of mounds to prevent flooding, and then dykes were built around the houses from the 4th century. Land reclamation from the ocean started on a large scale from as early as the 11th century. Now a significant part of Holland along the western seaboard has been reclaimed from the sea and large tracts are below sea level – up to 6.5 meters below in some areas. We drove up to the dyke called Afsluitdijk, which was built from 1927 to 1932, effectively shutting out the North Sea. It is a massive engineering feat, 32km long and 90 meters wide, with a two-lane highway in each direction on top. The bulk of the construction was made up of boulder clay which is poorly permeable deposit resulting from action under the ice of the Saalian Glacier, part of the Scandinavian ice-sheet from two hundred thousand years ago. The excavated boulder clay was set down on top of “mattresses” made up of woven willow branches and that were sunk into the ocean. Access to the harbour at Amsterdam is provided by the North Sea Canal.
Keukenhof, close to the town of Lisse, is unique and spectacular and is famous throughout the world. It has won prizes as Europe’s most valued attraction. The gardens are 32ha in extent, with 15km of footpaths. It is surrounded by a 30km stretch called the Bollenstreek (Bulb Fields), which can often be seen from the air when flying in to Amsterdam. This is where the commercial farmers grow bulbs in vast quantities for the export market, in the sandy soil of the polders that have been reclaimed from the ocean bed. At Keukenhof, seven million bulbs are planted by hand annually, comprising narcissi, hyacinths, daffodils, tulips (4.5 million in 100 different varieties) all of which bloom between the end of March and May. There are 2500 flowering trees of 87 varieties include Japanese cherry, azaleas and rhododendrons. Where Keukenhof is situated now, was a hunting area in the 15th century. Herbs for the kitchen of the local castle were collected here; hence the name Keukenhof (kitchen garden).
We dropped our hired car in The Hague and took a taxi down to the Hook of Holland, where the road was lined along the way for kilometre after kilometre on each side with huge glass hothouses for growing flowers for export. Flowers and bulbs are clearly a huge business in Holland. We caught an overnight ferry to Harwich on the coast of Essex, on the wide estuary made up of the Stour and Orwell Rivers, across from the busy port of Felixstowe. We had a very comfortable cabin despite the captain announcing a few times that bad weather was expected and that we should pay very careful attention to the safety announcements. Angela spent most of the night wide awake, knowing well that I would never hear any such announcements. I slept well!
The purpose was to hire a car and explore the beautiful Essex countryside around the Dedham Vale and the Stour River which was the home and painting ground of the landscape artist, John Constable. We visited Flatford Mill which was featured in a number of his paintings, and the old dry dock for repairing the river barges was still there. I remembered this part of England from the early 1970’s when I visited a company called British Xylonite Limited (BXL), near Manningtree, to replace our supply of nitrocellulose from Dynamite Nobel of Sweden, who had succumbed to the arms embargo at the time. Interestingly, Margaret Thatcher came from Manningtree and worked in the laboratory at BXL. (No, I did not meet her!) Those were the times when politicians actually had proper jobs.
I wanted Angela to see a stunning country lodge built in the 1500’s that I remembered, probably because of hitting my head against the low ceiling beams and door lintels, and where I had stayed 40 years ago on the Stour River. This had been a tolling booth, called Le Talbooth, built to collect road and river taxes on the boundary between Essex and Suffolk. We did find it but they had stopped offering lodgings and are now just an up-market restaurant venue, so we stayed at the Red Lion Hotel, built in 1485, in Colchester, which is the oldest city in England and goes back to the Roman occupation and is famous for Queen Boadicea (also known as Boudica – her original name), who took on the Romans and knocked the living daylights out of them, killing off 70 000 before she was finally overpowered.
She did this all with good reason. Boudica’s husband Prasutagus, ruler of the Iceni tribe had ruled as a nominally independent ally of Rome. They were initially not part of the territory under direct Roman control, having voluntarily allied themselves to Rome following Claudius‘ conquest of AD 43. Prasutagus had lived a long life of considerable wealth, living well on borrowed Roman money and, hoping to preserve his line, made the Roman emperor co-heir to his kingdom, along with his wife and two daughters. Roman law only allowed inheritance through the male line, so when Prasutagus died his attempts to preserve his line were ignored and his kingdom was annexed as if it had been conquered; lands and property were confiscated and the nobles were treated like slaves. Boudica was publicly flogged; her daughters were raped; and the Roman financiers called in their loans.
In the uprising orchestrated by Boudica, an estimated 70,000–80,000 people were killed in the three cities (including London) that her army attacked, which was an awful lot of people in those days! The rebels’ first target was Camulodunum (now called Colchester). The Roman veterans who had been settled there had been mistreating the locals and even a temple to the former emperor Claudius had been erected there at the total expense of the locals, making the city an area of resentment and ripe for revolt. The crisis almost persuaded Nero to withdraw from Britain; that is until Boudica was finally overcome at the Battle of Watling. Boudica apparently killed herself, rather than fall captive to the Romans.
They have compared Margaret Thatcher to Boadicea! The castle in Colchester has been converted into a very informative museum that compares with some of the best.