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;, 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 (

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; cost from €300 per night, including breakfast.

Visiting there

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

More information;

Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas