We had arranged to stay at Francine’s place for the night.
We were on a bike ride through Zeeland, a province of The Netherlands which lay west of Rotterdam.
Francine was a member of a Dutch organization called ´Friends of the Bike´ (Vrienden van de Fiets) and so were we. It worked like this: people offered to put up bike riders for the night and provide breakfast the following morning for a set fee of 45 Euros. The bike riders paid a nominal fee to be in the organization and received a book listing places to stay all over the country. Friends of the Bike was an inherent part of a national bike riding culture – and a country with the best system of bike tracks in the world.
Sometimes the people offering the accommodation were themselves also bike riders and felt obliged to contribute to the system they used. Sometimes they liked to meet strangers and talk. Over the years we had met some amazing people via ‘friends of the bike’ and had some memorable conversations – and Francine certainly fell into that category.
Francine lived in a small A frame house with a roof of cut reeds at the outskirts of a small town called Ouwekerk. Actually it was a vacation house where she and her partner lived for a good deal of the summer. It was very modern; when we rode through a gap in a high perimeter hedge and over a gravel drive and pulled up, we found ourselves looking into a state of the art kitchen/dining area with glass on both sides.
We saw Francine on the other side of the glass working in the garden. She was in her 50´s, slender, with shoulder length blond hair. She was wearing old cotton clothes and large straw hat and had gloves on her hands. She was outgoing and spoke Dutch without a trace of the accent normal for people who lived in Zeeland. She seemed content with her life. She smiled and laughed a lot.
After we got off our bikes and taken our bike bags inside, Francine invited us to sit with her in the back yard. There were wooden chairs with cushions arranged around a small wooden table under a small tree.
Before us was a disarming view: there was a long stretch of lawn between two high hedges; along the hedge on the right side was a narrow garden, replete with a mix of flowers and ferns. The lawn and hedges and garden formed a kind of green corridor about 15 meters long which sloped gently downwards and met a small lake edged by reeds. On the lake were ducks and water fowl.
Francine’s was one property amongst others which fronted on to the lake. The others were larger and the houses much bigger. This was an area inhabited by people with money, especially considering that these places were supposed to be ‘vacation homes’.
It was late in the afternoon and we were sipping glasses of wine and looking out over the garden and lake and chatting – about bike riding, politics and you name it. Francine was great company.
At one point, looking out at the scene before us, I remarked on how lovely it was to be so close to the water.
Francine said: ‘It’s from ’53.’
What was this?
I said: ‘But that was almost 70 years ago!’
Until 1953, Zeeland (meaning ‘sea land’ in Dutch) consisted of nine islands. A thousand years ago, these islands were part of a massive delta system. There were dunes and swamps and forests, washed by the confluence of rivers and sea. In the course of the centuries, they were settled and encircled by dykes. As more land was reclaimed from the water and more fields established and the population grew, each island became home to a community of people who spoke their own dialect, had their own traditions and clothing, and worshipped their own kind of Protestantism. Communications with the mainland were slow – by ship or boat – and life on the islands was one continual round of hard work and worship. The islands of Zeeland, being surrounded by water, were particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of the North Sea. There was a long history of dykes breaking and floods.
In 1953, a freak combination of a storm with hurricane strength winds and a spring tide broke the dykes. The islands were flooded and so was much of the nearby mainland. Two thousand people were drowned, 100,000 homes were destroyed, 200, 000 hectares of land was inundated and hundreds of thousands of farm animals died. It was a disaster of biblical proportions. When the dykes were finally patched up and the sea water pumped out and victims located and buried, the Dutch nation set itself to the task of defeating its oldest and most deadly enemy. Work on a whole new system of dykes and weirs – the so called the Delta Works – began. It took 20 years to complete and today, is one of the most remarkable engineering marvels in the world. No attempt by humans to control the forces of Nature comes close to the Delta Works. Go on a bike ride through Zeeland – and you get a good idea of the scale of the system; the huge dykes, the immense concrete ramparts with big iron gates which automatically open and close to control the tides – and the long high bridges, connecting the islands with one another and, the mainland.
Looking at the small lake in front of us, a part of a manicured suburban setting, I failed to see any connection with the disaster of 1953. The triumph of the Dutch over the water had been so complete that as far as I could see, the past was irrelevant.
Francine explained: ‘This water is a one part of a larger system. You might have seen it on your way here -´
Indeed we had.
We had ridden through the old village of Ouwekerk on our way to Francine’s. It was typical for Zeeland: there a beautiful old stone church in the center encircled wagon-like by historic Dutch houses with their beautiful facades. After riding around the circular town and out the other side, we had come to a bridge spanning a stretch of water where we had stopped, leaned our bikes against the iron railing, and got off to take break and check our maps.
It was then that we noticed our surroundings.
There was a stretch of water, obviously deep, enclosed by trees and undergrowth, which had no regular form and didn’t seem to go anywhere. It didn´t seem to fit in with the normally meticulously organized Dutch landscape of green polders and long dykes and straight canals.
The small lake we were looking at the end of Francine´s property was a part of this system – yet we were quite a distance from the bridge.
Francine explained that this entire stretch of water, with its odd form and various meanderings, was the result of the flood in 1953, when the dyke behind Ouwekerk broke.
‘The sea came in with such force that it gouged out a deep trench in the soil. Later, when the dyke was repaired and the seawater pumped out, the trench filled up with fresh water. There was no point in trying to fill it with soil – it would have been too much….’
She reminded me of something one tended to forget whilst living on the western side of this densely populated, modern nation: it was beneath sea level and very close to the water table.
In the past, the country had balanced between two threats: water from without – and also within.
Salt water and fresh.
I knew something about the flood. Read up on it.
Yet the image of water rushing across the land with such force that it ripped up the land and left behind it a deep wound really brought home to me the drama of that national disaster.
I said: ‘It must have been terrible for the people living here. Bad enough for everyone in Zeeland, but living in a place where the dyke broke – ‘
And this is how Francie van der Velde began talking about her father.
Suddenly, after a long day on the bike and two glasses of wine, I was wide awake.
‘He was 9 years old when it happened. He was one of 7 children. People had big families then. They were very religious. The dyke broke on a Saturday night in January. It was very cold, around zero. The family went to bed with the wind howling. There was nothing unusual about that and no one gave it a second thought. Then they woke up and heard a loud sound. They got up and saw water outside their windows, moving quickly and getting ever higher. The family rushed upstairs to the second floor. They were dressed in their pajamas. They went through their cupboards and put on all the clothes they could. The fireplace was downstairs and they knew that the cold was as big a threat as the water. The windows broke and the water rushed inside. But the house stood its ground…the family waited for help.
There was a second high tide on the Sunday accompanied by a strong wind and you know, it was this second influx of water which was even more lethal than the first….it was on the Sunday that the family home collapsed and was washed away…..
My father was the only survivor…..´
‘His family drowned?’
Francine smiled wistfully.
‘My father found himself clinging to a large cupboard used for storing clogs (´klompenkast´). The water was swirling around him and it was filled with debris. It was at night. He had no idea where he was. He knew that he couldn’t survive long on the clog cupboard. Then he saw a large, heavy plank and got on top of that. It saved his life…. although, in later years, he often had doubts about whether that was such a blessing.
Sitting on top of the plank, his plan was to wait until it drifted towards a dyke and then climb on to the dyke and wait for help. The hours passed. Monday morning came. He didn’t know where he was. All he could see was water and the roofs of submerged houses. The day passed. Another long cold night. On the morning of the second day, something happened which he could never have imagined. By this time, the sea had flooded over the land and it was no longer flowing in. The wind had dropped. The tide was turning and sucking water back out. The plank started drifting towards the gap in the dyke and out to sea…
The plank drifted through the gap in the dyke along with so much debris. When he was in the sea, he gave up. He prepared himself to die. He prayed to God and asked him to forgive him his sins. Like everyone else in Zeeland in those days, he was raised in accordance with a very strict Protestant ethic. The water was churning all around him. Then came the sound of a horn. It was a fishing boat which had seen him and was on its way to pick him up. When news of the disaster reached the mainland, all the fishing boats immediately went out to Zeeland to find survivors. They were the first line of help.
In those first days everything was chaos. You can imagine: it was the early 1950’s. The government had to organize help and somehow get it out to the islands. No one knew what was going on. There was no communications. The Dutch government had its hands full rebuilding the country after the total devastation of the war. It wasn’t prepared for anything like this. The Americans, based in Germany and Belgium then, were quick to react. They organized plane drops. They assembled amphibious vehicles, jeeps, medical supplies. The British sent help. But it took time and meanwhile, many people froze to death.
The fishing trawler came in to pick up my father. It was dangerous rescue. The tide was running out, a strong current. My father must have been close to death. He was paralyzed. He couldn’t move his legs. He was carried on board and wrapped in a blanket and put in the engine room, where it was warm – along with other survivors who had been rescued. They took him to the city of Zierikzee, which was flooded but there was still a lot of it above the water. They had a supply of dry coal and they had warm rooms.
After a few days, the rescue campaign was up and running. Searchers went from house to house in boats and amphibious vehicles. Bodies were collected and identified. The bodies of the Van der Velde family were placed in the church in Zierikzee along with hundreds of others. Shortly after he had recovered from the hypothermia, my father was required to identify the bodies of his parents and siblings. He was taken into the church and had to walk passed rows of coffins……. ‘
The conversation came to an end.
We went to our room and had a shower and put on fresh clothes. We had brought food with us, ate it, and then read a while before going to bed early. During the night I woke up and thought about the story Francine had related to us; graphic scenes appeared before me. They seemed so incongruous in the context of that quiet suburban lake with its reeds and birds.
A 9 year old boy orphaned, his home and everything he knew, swept away.
The next morning, sitting with Francine in the kitchen/dining area, eating bread and cheese and drinking strong coffee, the conversation from the evening before continued. I had slept badly and woken up with my head buzzing with questions.
I wanted to know what had happened to Francine’s father after the flood.
When I asked about this, I never realized its full implications.
The survival story didn’t end when Francine’s father – who she referred to as ‘Pa’ – was fished out of the water; in fact, that’s where it began ………
A classic Dutch scene photographed near Ouwekerk: a yacht sailing on the ocean, the fields safely sequestered behind a dyke….
See photos of the flood at Serious Travel Images: