Silted harbors and hidden gems
Island Stories #22: discovering a beautiful but little visited part of Zeeland
Wherever you travel in Europe, there is always fascinating local history that goes back many centuries and is often well documented. Castles and churches were built, burned, and rebuilt. Settlements grew to villages and even cities. They enjoyed prosperous times and then lost their influence when others took over.
The history of Zeeland is no different, but there is an extra element: the fight against the water. I described the province's flag in a recent post, with the lion struggling in the water and then triumphantly rising out of it; that is the story of this province. Water plays a role in the history of every village that I visit on these islands.
Today was no different. I visited villages in an area known as the 'Zak van Zuid-Beveland,' on the former island of Zuid-Beveland. I enjoyed the beautiful landscape of inner dikes and small polders. And as so often in Zeeland: the mesmerizing views over the flat land and the waters. The landscape tells us about the long history of small land reclamations that started in the twelfth century by the monks of Saint Bavo from Ghent. Thus, the names of the islands Noord-Beveland (just south of the island where I live) and Zuid-Beveland refer to Bavo-land.
Somehow most tourists seem to be unaware of this region's beauty; they pass through it on their way to the beaches further towards the west. That's a pity since the small villages are charming and flowery dikes meander through the polders. They change their colors every season. Some of these flowers are rare and protected, like the rough carnation and wild marjoram. The Dutch government designated the Zak van Zuid-Beveland as a Valuable Cultural Landscape.
All villages and towns need dikes to protect them against the water, but many also need access to the water for trade or fishing. The history of these islands is full of stories of villages that thrived because of their harbor, and often their fortunes changed once the ports silted up. The town of Biezelinge is an example.
Biezelinge is one of the oldest villages on the island. It originated near a creek that ran right through the island of Zuid-Beveland. In the 11th century, the village became a vital harbor due to the connection with the Western Scheldt and was even more influential than Goes. But it gradually silted up and disappeared in the early 18th century. I walked today where the port once was, on the present-day market square is still an anchor, and a beautiful house with the name 'de haven,' the harbor, painted on it. The town did not forget its history; 250 years later, it created a new kind of harbor with houses on both sides. They beautifully reflect in the water, and although it leads nowhere, I appreciate the reference to the nearly thousand-year history of this village and its constantly changing landscape.
The history of these islands is one of protecting against the water and one of protecting the water. You can still see that when you visit Fort Ellewoutsdijk. The Dutch build the fortress between 1835 and 1839, after the Belgian secession from the Netherlands. From this spot on the north side of the Western Scheldt, together with Terneuzen's fortress on the south side, the Dutch defended this strategic water. A hundred years later, in late 1944, the Western Scheldt was the scene of fierce fighting since occupying forces of Nazi Germany controlled the access to the all-important strategic harbor of Antwerp that the allied forces had already liberated.
Now visitors enjoy the views over the vast water where you can see huge ships sailing to and from Antwerp. And lots of birds can be seen from the top of the fort. This province is a paradise for both birds and bird watchers. The fortress is no different; black redstarts and barn swallows breed on top of it.
If you ever make it to this region, do make a stop in Nisse, a gem of a small village around a green commons with a church and a small pond. That structure makes it a typical Zeeland village, known as 'ring villages' centered around the church. My town, Burgh-Haamstede, has two of those rings. It took Burgh and Haamstede centuries to grow into one village, but both still feel different. And just like Biezelinge, most people don’t realize that even Haamstede used to be a village that had access to the water since there was a creek called the Amer (according to some, that is still reflected in the name Haamstede, as Amer-stede, Amer town, but Haam could also refer to ‘heem,’ home). Over the centuries, the harbor towards the southwest in the village of Westenshouwen has silted, and all that is left today are the names of the streets that refer to those times, like Sluispad (Sluice path), Ankerweg (Anchor road), Schuitkant (Barge side), and Scheepswerfstraat (Dockyard street). History always leaves its traces, you just have to open your eyes to it.
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