Trail of the unexpected: 400 years of a Dutch delight

Once it was under water. Now Beemster is Amsterdam's great green escape, says Nick Boulos

The bunting's out, flags are fluttering from windows and ribbons of red, green, yellow and blue are wrapped around almost every tree. Beemster is celebrating. But of the four colours that represent this sleepy Dutch municipality, 20km north of Amsterdam, only two symbolise its intriguing past. Green for the bucolic meadows and farmland that you see here today and blue for the vast lake that once stood here.

Four hundred years ago, the quiet country lanes and bright tulip fields weren't here. Before 1612, this vast polder was the haunt of fishermen until it was drained and the land reclaimed in an effort to protect the capital from flooding. It was a bold project which showed off Dutch engineering at its most innovative. However, the transition wasn't trouble-free.

Considered part of the greater capital area, its proximity to Amsterdam ensured it became the holiday destination of choice for 17th-century city slickers. Sprawling estates were commissioned, grand summer houses erected, and balmy days enjoyed amid windmills and grazing cows.

Today, Beemster is still an easy escape from Amsterdam, and a cluster of B&Bs makes it an attractive overnight option. I checked into the Old Marketgarden run by Joop and Aus Verhoef. "I was born in Beemster and could never live anywhere else. Amsterdam is only half an hour away, yet we are surrounded by unspoilt countryside," said Aus as she showed off the outdoor pool, sauna and hot tub.

However, indulgence would have to wait, as my guide Jaap had arrived for our cycling trip. We set off along one of many long, straight and flat roads that form a grid across the former lake bed – a design that helped Beemster to win Unesco World Heritage status in 1999. Talk soon turned to Beemster's transformation. "Work began in 1607," said Jaap. "The water was scooped away using windmills and long dikes that drained it to the North Sea." The local fishermen were up in arms, of course. "They tried to sabotage the whole thing but they needn't have bothered," continued Jaap. In 1610, a storm swept through the region, flooding the lake once again and very nearly spelling the end of the project. Nevertheless, work pressed on. The windmill count was upped from 16 to 43 and water levels soon dropped.

The main street in Middenbeemster – the first town to be founded – was quiet. Unattended bikes were left leaning against the red-brick buildings. There's no need for locks and chains in these parts. We paused outside the 17th-century church. During the town's early years, women bound for mass would insist on being carried on their husband's backs. It took decades for the ground to dry out fully and the women weren't taking any chances with their dresses.

Heading west, the grandest of all Beemster's summer estates appeared by the roadside. With a pyramid-shaped roof, groomed hedges and neat lawns, Eenhoorn took shape in 1682 as a holiday home for the well-heeled. It recently sold for €3.5m.

Further along, Jaap pointed out a fort in the distance. Constructed in 1912, Benoorden Purmerend is one of 42 forts that form part of a 135km defensive line around Amsterdam. Though never used, the formidable ramparts were designed to ward off attacks from the British, French and Germans. Many have since been transformed into commercial ventures – everything from wineries to spas.

We continued on the road until we reached a dead end formed by a canal marking Beemster's western boundary. On the other side, the land rose by several metres. "This is where the lake once rushed ashore," said Jaap. From there we pedalled into De Rijp, a former fishing settlement from the 1300s described by architect Jan Adriaanszoon Leeghwater – the man credited with turning Beemster from water to land – as "the best village in Holland". It was easy to see why. The cobbled streets, wooden locks and narrow canals, and the quaint redbrick houses made an idyllic picture.

Over lunch at the cosy and family-run Weapon of Munster Café, I soaked up the surroundings. Locals strolled past the town hall, a stunning example of Dutch Renaissance architecture.

That afternoon, we gave our weary legs a rest by changing our mode of transport. Beemster may be terra firma now, but it's still possible to take to the water. The engine of our small blue boat purred softly as it navigated the labyrinthine waterways of Eilandspolder, a protected nature reserve on the periphery of Beemster.

Travelling at a snail's pace, we cruised by spindly reeds and grazing lambs. Overhead, geese took to the skies and distant jumbo jets descended towards Schiphol airport.

"Farmers used to get around on boats like this," said Jaap. "Their cattle would spend the summer on small peat islands and they would sail across the lake to milk them." While I was cycling back, a curious sign caught my eye. Looking at me was a depiction of a cow wearing, of all things, a snorkel. Written underneath was "400 years of dry feet". Even the cows are celebrating.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), which flies to Amsterdam from Heathrow and Gatwick from £98 return. Other carriers include KLM, easyJet, Flybe and Jet2.

Local bus 301 runs to Beemster and to De Rijp from Central Station (ebs-ov.nl).

Staying there

Doubles at the Old Marketgarden B&B (00 31 6 4059 0949) costs from €65.

Doubles at Amsterdan's Hotel de l'Europe (00 31 2 0531 1777; leurope.nl) cost from €300 per night, including breakfast.

Visiting there

Boat journeys at Eilandspolder (degouw.nu) cost from €20 per hour.

More information iamsterdam.com; beemsterinfo.nl

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