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Icons of Holland

Windmills and Kinderdijk

Windmills are typically Dutch, and like tulips & cheese, they seem to be everywhere. There are well over a thousand windmills in the Netherlands, and historically they performed a great number of different functions. The most important one was pumping water out of the lowlands, in order to turn lakes and marshlands into polders, and to help the Dutch keep their feet dry. However, the majority of today’s windmills are flour mills, which can be found across the country and not only in those parts that are below sea level. During the steam-powered Industrial Revolution, which in the Netherlands took off only halfway through the 19th century, industrial windmills rapidly became obsolete and disappeared from the scene almost completely.

Windmills in Kinderdijk
Windmills in Kinderdijk

A perfect place to see windmills is Kinderdijk, where nineteen windmills have been draining water from the polder into the river for centuries. Overwaard’s wooden mills and Nederwaard’s brick mills, all giant grondzeilers with sails spanning up to thirty metres, move water from the polders to the lower and upper basins. Then, the High Mill, which uses a screw instead of a water wheel, lifts the water another 2½ metres, before discharging it into the river. Two of the mills are open to visitors, an exhibition at the visitors centre shows everything you always wanted to know about Dutch water management (but were afraid to ask), and a tour boat offers a pleasant way to see the mills and take great pictures. Speaking of boats: the best way to get to Kinderdijk is the № 202 Waterbus, a fast ferry that shuttles between Rotterdam and Dordrecht every two hours, morning and afternoon, from May through October.

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Another excellent place to see windmills is Zaandam’s Zaanse Schans, just under 20 minutes by train from Amsterdam. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Zaanstreek region developed into the first known industrial estate in the country, with at its peak 639 active windmills: wind-powered factories for machine-sawn wood, paper, ground spices, oil for food & paint, dyes, many types of fibres, flour, cocoa powder, and more. Today, ten windmills are open to visitors, and the Zaans Museum hosts an exhibition on the history of the region, while a number of tourist outlets sell stuff made in China.


A fine example of an industrial windmill is The Falcon in Leiden, an authentic tower flour mill built on the city walls in 1743, high enough to rise above the houses in its surroundings in order to catch enough wind. The mill is now a museum, showing visitors how the grain milling process took place in the lofts located from the fourth floor (14 m) to the top (29 m) of the mill. On the lower floors, the museum features an exhibition about mills & milling.


After the invention of the steam engine, water-pumping windmills were replaced by steam-powered pumping stations. Two of them worth visiting are the Cruquius in Haarlemmermeer, housing the world’s largest steam engine, and the Woudagemaal in Lemmer, with its capacity of four million litres per minute the largest steam pumping station ever built.


Off-topic: Kinderdijk is famous for its windmills, but at the same time hardly anyone seems to remember that it was here that the first power station in the Netherlands opened in 1886, providing electricity for 350 light bulbs (at ƒ 12 to ƒ 15 per bulb per year) and 21 street lights. One modern Kinderdijk resident had a lift in his home, and every time he used it, all lights in the neighbourhood would briefly dim because of its excessive power consumption.