Visiting a Dutch Windmill

Windmills, tulips, clogs, cheese and Van Gogh….. these are the words that spring to mind when Holland is mentioned. When you visit the Netherlands you expect to see windmills, lots of them. Even better would be to see inside one, but how to do go about visiting a Dutch windmill?  Easy if you are in the south of the Netherlands, you go to the Kinderdijk windmills just like Nell from Pigeon Pair and Me did, but if you are in North Holland, as we were, getting inside a windmill had me foxed.

As we drove around the Netherlands we saw plenty of windmills, helped by the fact that they are marked on the road map and I plotted a route that took us past as many as possible.  Imagine my delight when driving across the polder six miles east of Alkmaar I saw a sign that proclaimed Museum Mill, OPEN!  Our trusty guide book had not mentioned such a thing, nor had I seen any leaflets about it (and I love a leaflet), a surprise of the very best kind.

Museum Mill Schermerhorn

VISITING A DUTCH WINDMILL

What we had stumbled upon was the Schermer Mills or Molen they are open every day from early Spring until late autumn.  Everything you ever wanted to know about the engineering project of draining and maintaining the Polders and the lifestyle of the miller is explained.  You get to wander round the millers living quarters and clamber up and around the moving mechanism.  There is even a film in English explaining the history of the mill and the land you see around you.

Giant Clogs Dutch windmill

What was life like for a Dutch miller?

In one word, hard!  On the upside the commute was non existent as you got to live in the office.  On the downside you might need to work at any time of the day or night, who knows when the wind will change direction or the rain begin to fall.  Pay was low but you also got free accommodation and an allowance of petrol, candles and peat, on top of that you also had use of a small plot of land on which to grow vegetables and maybe graze a cow or two.  Not only did you not get paid very much, the work was hazardous with lots of heavy moving machinery to fall into.  Well at least the accommodation would be cosy?  Well, I’m afraid not, the mills were not very well insulated and had no proper chimney meaning that the rooms would have been both draughty and smoky.  Which is a shame because they look so cosy and picturesque now!

Dutch windmill interior with cupboard bed

Why does the Netherlands have so many windmills?

Good question!  The Netherlands occupies the land where the Rhine flows out to the sea. Meaning that the land is low lying and vulnerable to flooding both from the river upstream and from the sea.  So vast is the Rhine that it doesn’t just reach the North Sea at one place rather it has many distributaries.  One of these is the River Ij, which used to reach the sea at Amsterdam via the Ijssel Meer which meant that the thin stretch of land from Haarlem, to Alkmaar and up to Den Helder was at risk from being washed away.  So the Dutch were faced with a choice, settle for regular flooding and soggy ground or drain the land and put in place an elaborate set of flood defences.  They chose the drainage option and windmills were needed to pump the water up and away.

Drainage began at the end of the sixteenth century and really gathered pace after that.  In 1608 the Beemster polder was drained, so successful was this that the investors eyes turned to the Schmerer Lake.  In 1631 the decision was taken to drain the lake.  Work didn’t start for another three years as the large and deep lake proved to be a daunting task.
Dutch windmill mechanism

How do you create a Polder?

And, indeed, what is a Polder?  First things first, a polder is the land created by draining water.  How do you make a Polder?  You start by digging a big circular canal, the dikes (or banks) were made using the earth that was dug out, thus creating a ring dike.  (Are you keeping up at the back?). Windmills were put on top of the dikes, these were called ring mills or top mills.  Once these mills had drained as much water out as they could another lower layer of mills was built …. these were called middle mills. These middle mills pumped water up into a new waterway and then the top mills pumped that water up into the ring dike and away. Four layers of mills were needed to drain the Schmerer lake.  Even when the land was fully drained all four layers of mills were needed to ensure that the water didn’t come back again.  Fifty two windmills were built in Schmerer, some of them solitary ones and others grouped together.

How does a windmill work?

More specifically, how does a polder mill work.  Those windmills look pretty solid, don’t they?  Well, they’re not because the land is so fragile that a heavy structure would just sink.  They have eight solid staves of wood that hold up the cap and the sails and the rest of the structure is flimsy and reed covered.  That cap at the top, it can move around meaning that the sails can always be pointed in the best direction to catch the wind.  Water was raised from one level to another by means of a six meter long water wheel, not the kind of water wheel that we are familiar with in the UK but rather an Archimedes screw type of wheel.
Waterwheel Dutch windmill

FUN FACT:  Schermerhorn means a headland on the Schermer, so before the lake was drained it would have been fishing hamlet and not the land locked farming community that it is now.

VISITING THE MUSEUM MILL need to know

  • Noordervaart 2, 1636 VL Schmerhorn.
  • To find the mill head due east out of Alkmaar on the N243 for six miles
  • If you are starting from Amsterdam the journey will take about 45 minutes, head north on the A7, then the N244 and the N243
  • Open daily 24 March – 31 October, 10am – 5pm
  • Admission €4 Adults, €2.50 Children 4-12
  • Best of all …..there is a tea room!


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Visiting a Dutch Windmill

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15 Comments

  1. May 11, 2018 / 7:53 am

    What a fascinating post! I’d never heard of a Polder mill before, and wasn’t really sure what purpose the windmills served. I’ve learned something already this morning, & it’s not even 8 am! Thank you, Catherine

    • May 11, 2018 / 8:02 am

      There must have been everywhere you looked before the days of electric pumps,

  2. May 11, 2018 / 8:10 am

    Excellent blog as always. I didn’t know much about this at all and it’s fascinating. You take your teens to some great places.

  3. May 11, 2018 / 9:11 am

    I love industrial history! Thanks, Catherine. Enlightening and fascinating. Plotting on how to get my teens out there … 😀

  4. May 11, 2018 / 10:53 am

    fascinating read

  5. May 12, 2018 / 8:48 am

    First of all, I’m absolutely LOVE windmills! I’m so excited that there’s actually a way to learn about them so up close and hands on!

    • May 12, 2018 / 8:51 am

      I know! I still haven’t got the grin off my face!

  6. May 12, 2018 / 9:14 am

    I’m visiting Holland in a week and really hope to visit an old windmill while there. I loved reading and seeing how they work in detail. .

    • May 12, 2018 / 9:37 am

      Lucky you, fingers crossed that you get to visit a windmill

  7. May 12, 2018 / 10:00 am

    Ah I cannot wait to see the windmills when Im in the netherlands later this month!

  8. May 12, 2018 / 10:18 am

    Great post! I love visiting Kinderdijk (I’m in Rotterdam) but i sure need to visit one inside still!

  9. May 12, 2018 / 6:12 pm

    Love that you got your boys to pose in the clogs! Fab, informative post.

  10. pigeonpairandme
    May 14, 2018 / 10:25 am

    Ah, D and I stayed near Alkmaar on our first ever holiday together as a couple. It’s good to know we’ll be able to take the kids to a windmill when we get round to a repeat visit! It’s a fantastic corner of the Netherlands. Thanks for mentioning my post.

    • May 14, 2018 / 11:58 am

      How romantic! Do the pigeons have The Cow Who Fell Into the Canal which features Alkmaar in a big way

  11. May 15, 2018 / 8:41 am

    I love visiting windmills! There’s another little collection of windmills called Zaanse Schans I wrote about not far from Alkmaar! Some of them you can also go inside of which is really good to see how they work! This windmill looks super nice inside! #CityTripping

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