The article below was published in Pinnable’s newsletter in .

True North

Groningen’s Surrounding Countryside

Groningen, in the north-east of the Netherlands, is the name of both the city of Groningen & the lands around it, the Ommelaand in the vernacular. From the west via the A7 motorway, your first stop should be the Adelskerk in Midwolde, a 13th-century church with an imposing tomb representing a late squire of Nienoord & his mourning wife. Other churches that are open to the public are St Mary’s in Krewerd, St Hippolytus’ in Middelstum, and St Peter’s in Pieterburen. Close to the German border is Bourtange, a fortress dating from the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), meant to safeguard the road to the city of Groningen. It has the look & feel of an open-air museum that transports you back to 1742, but Bourtange is a normal village where my friend Jochem plays the church organ on Sunday mornings. The real open-air museum, Het Hoogeland in Warffum, takes you back only a century, and shows what rural Groningen looked like in bygone days — my favourite here is the prototype of a zelfzwichter windmill with spring sails, from 1890.

The 13th-century church at the mound village of Ezinge

Just north of Warffum is the hamlet of Noordpolderzijl, where you will find an archetypal living-room café, and the smallest seaport in the country, accessible only at high tide via a fairway through the Wadden Sea salt marsh. Rural Groningen is seen at its best from its windy country roads, and a perfect stopping place on your way from A to B is Café Hammingh at the Reitdiep canal in Garnwerd. When journeying westward from there, be sure to call at the picturesque Aduarderzijl hamlet & the charming villages of Ezinge & Niehove — the latter is your quintessential radial mound village, and was proclaimed the most beautiful village in the Netherlands in 2019. Groningen had no nobility and therefore no castles, but its country gentlemen lived in manor houses called borgen. Three of these are open to visitors: Borg Verhildersum in Leens, the Fraeylemaborg in Slochteren & the Menkemaborg in Uithuizen. If I had time to visit only one of them, I would go for the last one, but the other two are really nice too.

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In 1657, at the age of 17, Anna van Ewsum, who was the last scion of her house & the heiress of Nienoord & Vredewold, married her stepfather’s younger brother Karl Hieronymus von Innhausen und Knyphausen, who died in 1664, at the age of 31. Within six weeks of his death, Anna contracted Rombout Verhulst to sculpt an impressive marble tomb for the Church of Midwolde, depicting herself in a gracious manner, looking at her deceased husband. Verhulst charged her ƒ 7,500 — which would be roughly € 90,000 today — and finished the monument five years later. By that time Anna’s in-laws had long presented her with a second husband, Karl’s second cousin Georg Wilhelm, whom she married in 1666, after signing the marriage contract a year earlier, and with whom she produced an heir in 1669. In 1694, Emperor Leopold I elevated the couple to the ranks of count & countess, and after Count Georg Wilhelm von Inn- & Knyphausen died in 1709, the sculpture that Bartholomeus Eggers had made of him was transferred from their borg in Nienoord to the church in Midwolde, to join the tomb that Verhulst had crafted.


Sculptor Rombout Verhulst based his tomb for Carel Hieronymus van In- & Kniphuisen (d. 1664) & Anna van Ewsum (d. 1714) at the Adelskerk Church in Midwolde on a tomb that he had finished in 1663, for the late Baron Willem van Liere (d. 1654) & his widow Maria van Reygersbergh (d. 1673), at the Dorpskerk Church in Katwijk. Other notable sepulchral monuments by Verhulst are the tomb of Maarten Tromp (1656), for which poet Joost van den Vondel wrote the elegy, at the Old Church in Delft, the epitaph for Pieter van der Werff (1661) & the tomb of Johan van Kerckhoven (1663) at St Peter’s Church in Leiden, the tomb of Willem van Gendt (1676) at the Dom Cathedral in Utrecht, and, not his best creation, the tomb of Michiel de Ruyter (1681) at the New Church in Amsterdam.


St Bartholomew’s Church in Stedum (Groningen) also houses a tomb sculpted by Rombout Verhulst, that of Adriaan Clant, who was one of the Dutch Republic’s eight delegates to negotiate the Peace of Münster that ended the Eighty Years’ War. He is the third gentleman from the left swearing the oath of confirmation in the painting The Ratification of the Treaty of Münster by Gerard ter Borch, on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Clant’s son Johan commissioned Verhulst in 1670, the year after the tomb in Midwolde had been unveiled, five years after his father had died; Verhulst finished the tomb in Stedum in 1672.


During the 17th & 18th centuries, gentleman farmers in Groningen competed with each other over whose village had the greatest organ, and as a result today many excellent organs are scattered throughout the province, some of them slightly oversized for their churches. When the national daily paper De Volkskrant compiled a list of the top 15 notable organs in the Netherlands in 2019, and a top-16-to-30 listicle one year later, they admitted that not all listed organs were from Groningen because the top 30 had to be evenly distributed nationwide. The ones from Groningen that made it to the list are those of the Martini Church, which was awarded first place, and the Der Aa Church, both in the city of Groningen, the Schnitger organ at the Church of Noordbroek, the organ of St Mary’s Church in Krewerd, nicknamed De schreeuwerd van Krewerd (Krewerd’s screamer), and the Hinsz organ at St Peter’s Church in Leens.


Bourtange Fortress, a pentagonal bastion fort featuring ramparts, moats, ravelins & the whole shebang, begun in 1580 by order of the Prince of Orange & then finished in 1593 by his nephew William Louis of Nassau, was meant to cut off supply lines to the city of Groningen, which had not joined the Dutch Revolt against Spain. After the city surrendered to the Dutch Republic in 1594, the fortress, now intended to safeguard the road to the city from invading troops, was expanded several times until it reached its final form in 1742. Following its decommissioning in 1850, the fortress was dismantled & Bourtange became a village like any other, until it was restored to its full glory between 1967 & 1992. (On your way to Bourtange, be sure to call at the lovely hamlet of Smeerling for a walk along the brook that meanders through the Valley of the Ruiten Aa.)


Concerning zelfzwichter windmills — a major problem with all windmills was the need to feather the sails or reduce sail area so that if the wind suddenly increased during a storm the sails would not be ripped to shreds. In 1772 Andrew Meikle, a Scottish millwright, invented the spring sail, a shutter arrangement similar to a venetian blind, in which the sails were controlled by a spring. When the wind pressure exceeded a preset amount, the shutters opened to let some of the wind pass through. In 1789 Stephen Hooper of England introduced roller blinds that could all be simultaneously adjusted with a manual chain from the ground while the mill was working. This was improved upon in 1807 by the English engineer William Cubitt, who combined Meikle’s shutters with Hooper’s remote control by hanging moving weights on the adjustment chain, thus making the control automatic. From 1891 onwards these so-called patent sails found acceptance in the Netherlands, chiefly in Groningen, where some half of all surviving windmills are of the zelfzwichter type.

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