Tuesday 10 November 2015

First impressions

I always seem to have kept journals of my travels, however sketchy or shorthand. Mostly, these written recollections end up in boxes or gather dust on bookshelves. Clearing up in my cellar recently, I came across a wirebound notebook from my student days, mostly full of lecture notes, references to academic articles and letters of application which had been drawn out in rough. At the back of the notebook however, I found some interesting jottings I had penned on my first ever trip to the Netherlands in March 1979.
Little did I know that I would spend the greater part of my adult life there. At the time, I was 21 years old and studying Geography in my final year at Newcastle University. Part of these studies involved a week-long field trip to the Netherlands and Germany, taking in the Rhine delta, the new polders (now Flevoland) and the German Rhineland as far south as Mainz.
It would be a further 5 and a half years before I eventually moved to the Netherlands, but my notes of that trip give a brief account of my first impressions of the part of the world where I would later settle. Below is an extract from the Dutch section of these travels.
On Friday 23 March 1979 we crossed the North Sea by night ferry from Hull and landed the following morning in Europoort ...

Saturday 24 March 1979 
Arrived Rotterdam (Europoort) at about 8.45 after passing refineries, ships and tankers unloading etc., a really enormous place. Weather is still fine but not too warm.
First sight of Holland (it’s so flat anything that sticks up tends to stand out). PS It’s a power station [see above].
Left Europoort at around 10.00 a.m. (General route during the day – Europoort > Oostvorne Brielle > Haringvliet barrage1 > Ouddorp (stop for lunch) > Stellendam > Dirksland > Nieuwe Tonge > Dordrecht (via Hellegatsplein) > Gorinchem > Bunnik (Utrecht))
Holland (or should I say, the Netherlands) is very flat (shock, horror!) Everything seems geared up to keeping the water out and there are hundreds of drainage ditches and dykes. Houses are very prosperous looking. Every aspect of life is neat and tidy – land use, litter, even social order. There are no hedges to fields.
The youth hostel is a riot – very loosely organised – disco, bar and Dutch people. It doesn’t shut. The Dutch we have spoken to are quite a rabble of drunkards; but perhaps that’s the sort of clientele that youth hostels attract. Holland is very uniform: the towns and villages are very similar. There is a preponderance of water (in ditches, etc.) and new houses (very tasteful) are often accompanied by a stream in the garden. There are lots of cars even though the motorways are nothing like as good as Britain’s. If there are more cars in relation to Britain, there are even more bicycles. Roads have cycle tracks alongside and everyone seems to own one. This is possibly because Holland is so flat with no hills to climb. One Dutch fellow (who couldn’t understand why the British earned so little) told me he took a dislike to mountains (he may have meant small hillocks) and preferred to have his dykes and ditches any day. 
The toilets – at least in this youth hostel are weird. Compare with the British.  
Most [of my fellow students] seem to be little impressed with Holland, except for the youth hostel (Bunnik).
Sunday 25 March 1979 
Spent the day on the Zuider Zee looking at polders. First of all – after breakfast – we went into Utrecht. The professor, who was to have shown us round, had the flu so it was left to ourselves to look round. Utrecht has a (large) shopping centre, much cleaner [than Newcastle’s] and very expensive2. Cathedral tower very impressive. No shops open of course, except a stall at the station which adjoined the shopping complex. Holland does have its yobbos – some teenagers kicking cans around the station forecourt. The most recently reclaimed [Zuidelijk Flevoland] was really bleak – untouched, flat – and the connecting road to Lelystad was flanked on one side by the sea and on the other by the bleak landscape3. Really strange. The information centre on Nieuw Land was interesting – (information provided on request) – on the outskirts of Lelystad – a brand new town.
Farms are very large in this area and, of course, very new. The farms on the mainland’ are worthy of note. Barns are peculiar, the roofs of which move up and down according to the quantity of material stored4. The majority of houses are piecemeal, except in towns where they are inclined to be more uniform, especially the larger towns where deck-access development features. 
Most of the normal houses are similar in shape,
with low [exterior] walls and steep roofs from front to back. Apparently, most usually have cellars.  
Some thatching occurs, but red tiles seem to be the norm. Around Arnhem, the landscape becomes more undulating. Most is covered with heathland and woods5. It is positively hilly. 
The YH itself is modern and more like a hotel with heating, showers, a tiled bathroom, disco, bar, television, games room, etc. Very smart. 

It was a brief stopover in the Netherlands. The next day we moved on to Germany for the best part of a week, although the motorway journey back to Rotterdam a week later skirted Aachen and Heerlen.

Historical/geographical notes: 
1 The Haringvliet barrage was completed in 1971 and forms part of the massive construction programme intended to strengthen the sea defences in the south east of the Netherlands in the wake of the devastating inundations of 1953 in Zeeland. 
2 When it was built in 1973, Hoog Catharijne was the largest indoor shopping mall in Europe. 
3 The Zuidelijk Flevoland polder was part of a major land reclamation scheme which drained the south western sector of the Ijsselmeer (formerly Zuiderzee). Although there were plans to reclaim more land from this inland sea, Flevoland ended up being final piece of the jigsaw. Work to drain the land was started in 1959 and the enclosing dyke was completed in 1968. 
4 Known in the UK as ‘Dutch barns’ or ‘hay barracks’. NL = hooiberg 
5 The Veluwe.