At the end of July 1612 the Princes Maurits and Frederik Hendrik were looking at the newly reclaimed Beemster. They were the first visitors to what was to become one of the most beautiful polders of Holland. At that time the land was still empty, but soon houses, farms and beautiful country homes were to be built in the new land.
The princes had been invited by the men who had realised the daring plan. A group of merchants from Amsterdam and regents from The Hague had been granted permission to reclaim North Holland’s largest lake in 1607. In the area north of Amsterdam large lakes had been formed due to settling of the original peat soil, storm floods and the crumbling away of the banks. The increasing water problems threatened the cities. Moreover, the growing city population created an ever increasing need for agricultural land for food. Merchants who had become rich through trade were looking for new forms of investment and were devising schemes to reclaim the large lakes. These plans could be realised thanks to new technological developments. The dike builders engaged the mill builder Jan Adriaansz from ‘De Rijp’ to manage the technical part of the project. His success earned him the (nick) name Leeghwater.
After the construction of the ring dike, 26 windmills started to pump the water out of the Beemster. However in January 1610, a severe storm caused the polder to flood again and as a result, they had to start all over again. This time the work was done by 40 windmills. In the summer of 1612 the job was finished and the lake was dry!
The dike builders enthusiastically seized the unique opportunity to lay out the new, empty land. Simon Stevin had only recently published about the principles of ideal planning in his book The ideal city. These principles had come over from Italy as part of Italian Renaissance thinking. The square was considered to be the truly highest form of beauty. A pattern of squares was chosen for the lay-out of the new land, formed by watercourses and roads. Up until the present day, this exceptional land division has been preserved almost untouched and was one of the reasons why Unesco decided to put The Beemster on the World Heritage List.(1999). This decision created a unique situation, because part of another World Heritage site, the Stelling (Defence line) of Amsterdam, was now included in the area of the Beemster.
Villages, farmhouses and contryhouses
However, not all the plans were realised. Originally it was the intention to build villages at five crossroads. Yet, only in the centre of the polder, at the intersection of the ‘Rijper’ and the ‘Middenweg’, did a planned village come into existence: Middenbeemster. In 1623, the first church was also built there, designed by the Amsterdam architect Hendrick de Keyser. The other villages emerged not according to plan but due to coincidence. Westbeemster evolved from an originally Roman-Catholic enclave and is a ‘lintdorp’ (a ribbon-shaped village) stretching precisely between two crossroads.
The plans for a granary for the city population also had to be abandoned quickly. Although there were good harvests during the first years after the reclamation, it soon appeared that the soil was too wet for agriculture due to settling and insufficient draining possibilities. The Beemster turned green: a cattle-breeding area whose dairy products were traded to the cities. Beemster cheese has been well-known for ages!
Large herds of cattle from Northern-Germany and Denmark were brought to the Beemster in spring to be fattened by the nutritious grass and then slaughtered in the autumn. Cattle-breeding went through good and bad periods in the course of the centuries.
Three outbreaks of the cattle-plague in the eighteenth century were extremely serious when almost two thirds of the cattle died. There were also good times, such as those in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. At that time many ‘stolp’ farms (bell-glass) were built or rebuilt with richly ornamented woodwork on the façades.
Up until today, the largest part of the Beemster consists of agricultural land. The dike builders also used their acquired landed for their own benefit. They built country homes and pleasure gardens where they spent the summer months, away from the heat and stench of the city.
Especially in the southern part of the polder, along the ‘Volger’ and ‘Zuiderweg’ beautiful country houses were built with geometrically designed gardens. Thirty years after the reclamation the Beemster numbered more than 50 country homes. Due to the economic decline, the majority of these country houses had to be sold and demolished around 1800. Nowadays there is hardly any trace of them.
What does remain to be seen?
The present day visitor to the Beemster will first of all notice the vast amount of open space. The English author Aldous Huxley already admired the geometrical beauty of the polder landscape:
“Inevitably the laws of perspective lead the long roads and the shining water to a vague vanishing point. Lovely landscape!”The pyramids of the stolp farms fit the landscape remarkably well. Especially from the ring dike, the visitor can get a good view of the straight, strict lines of the exceptional land division. The largest part of the ring dike is accessible; only the northern part is not paved and is only open to pedestrians (no dogs allowed!).
The central square in Middenbeemster is a protected village-view, where the 400 years old church of Hendrick de Keyzer is the focal point. “Onder de Linden” (under the lime-trees) next to the church was originally the house of the sexton, who was also the cantor and headmaster. The first man to be appointed sexton was Pieter Fabritius. He was the father of the painter Carel Fabritius, one of Rembrandt’s pupils.
The vicarage, where vicar’s wife Betje Wolff wrote her novels and letters in the eighteenth century, is located a little further down the ‘Middenweg’. It is a museum now. Nearly opposite museum Betje Wolff is the ‘Bezoekerscentrum Beemster’, situated in the front part of the ‘Westerhem’, which was built for a 19thcentury mayor. The Agricultural Museum Westerhem is located in the stolp farm behind it.
Along the ‘Rijperweg’ there is the ‘Heerenhuis’ (manor-house), originally an inn, a boarding house and the meeting-place for the municipality until the completion of the present town hall in 1993. Nowadays it houses a restaurant.
Unfortunately nothing remains of the country homes which were built in the 17th and 18th century. A few 19thcentury manor houses, such as ‘Boschrijk’ along the Jisperweg and ‘Rustenhove’ on the corner of the Volgerweg and the Middenweg, give us an impression of how it once must have been. Opposite Rustenhove we find the Beemster’s most famous stolp farm, ‘De Eenhoorn’, originally from 1682. The Beemster still numbers more than 300 stolp farms. For further information see the brochure on Farms in Beemster (NL)(.
Besides the church in Middenbeemster there are two other churches in the Beemster: the Mennonite Vermaning (church building) along the Middenweg (1785) and the monumental Roman-Catholic church in Westbeemster (1879). Next to this church there is a former convent, nowadays an apartment building, and on the opposite side of the Kerkplein Café De Kerckhaen is located, which was once founded as a clandestine church for the Catholic population (1752). For further information see the brochure on Churches in Beemster NL
A World Heritage in a World Heritage
In the southern part of the polder fortifications of the ‘Stelling of Amsterdam’ which is also a World Heritage, were built at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. ‘Fort bij Spijkerboor’ is open to the public. For further information see the Folder NL forten Beemster