The Windmill


It was after hearing the stories from my dying mother in law that I decided to visit the old windmill. It was one of those things I’d always meant to do but never got around to and I mean it’s not as if it was far away: 10 minutes or so on my bike.

Originally built in 1738 and restored 20 years ago, the windmill was situated in the somewhat appropriately named ‘Southern Corridor Park’ (zuidelijk randpark): a long strip of land, approximately 200 meters wide and two kilometres long sandwiched between apartment blocks on one side – and the main  highway from Rotterdam to Amsterdam on the other. The park had been turned into a recreational area, an oasis of green in the midst of a big city; there were open grassy areas, lines of trees, a number of small lakes, a bike trail ….and the old windmill.

For years I had regularly ridden passed it but never really gave it a second thought. Then one day, I stopped, got off my bike, and took a closer look.

It was 21 metres high – high alright – but windmills 40 high were not unusual. In 1738, there were an estimated 10,000 windmills in The Netherlands, most of them concentrated in the west of the country between Amsterdam and Rotterdam.

Windmills were used to pump water out of the soggy farming land and over the dykes and into canals and rivers. But they were used for many other purposes such as milling grains, sawing planks (crucial for the shipbuilding industry) and grinding spices.

Inside the windmill, I was surprised at what I found: a complex system of shafts and cogs – like clockwork – most of them made from wood. In its time I realised this was an impressive piece of machinery: high tech.

No other visitors appeared.

I was alone inside this strange, centuries old machine. My thoughts drifted and another windmill appeared before my mind’s eye, along with the reminiscences shared by mother and daughter during their last days together …….

Anya’s mother and father met in Amsterdam at the end of the Second World War.

They came from different provinces and spoke a different dialect of Dutch but they had much in common: both of them were refugees in their own country, looking for work and trying to put the past behind them after five long years of Nazi occupation. Of being morally compromised by the very act of surviving after so many others had died – or been gassed.

They fell in love. It was a miracle.


After so much hate.

Anya’s mother got pregnant. They both wanted children but they got married because they had to; in those days the fate of an unmarried mother was unthinkable. They were then faced by another problem. In Amsterdam accommodation for a married working class couple was impossible to find.

It was then that they moved to her husband’s village. A small house had become available after the former tenant had died. It was one of a row of houses on a dyke at the side of a large canal. There was no work in the village and so Anya’s father had to work a long way from home; he was away for two weeks at a time whilst her mother raised her child – and in time, three children – on her own. No one had an easy life in those days. The country was in ruins; it been bombed mercilessly during the war and in the last winter, there had been mass starvation (the Nazis had trained all the food and the crops to Germany) and 70, 000 people had starved to death. The Netherlands was a pile of rubble and hard at work to rebuild itself. Thousands of people emigrated, convinced that their country was finished.


On either side of the canal was an expanse of fields, in some of them cows and in other crops: potatoes, sugar beet, wheat, barley and rye. Horses were used to plough the fields and because the ground was so soft and watery, the horses’ hoofs were fitted with the equivalent of wooden clogs, which were strapped on to their iron shoes. The work in the fields – planting, weeding, harvesting – was done by agricultural laborers, a class of people whose entire existence revolved around working manually on the land. The wheat, barley and rye, was scythed; the cows milked by hand. Life revolved around the seasons.

Almost directly opposite the house was a large windmill – 30 metres high and visible from far away. It was used to grind flour from the barley, wheat and rye, which were brought there from the fields by horse and cart, where they were milled then bagged up before being loaded into the hold of barges which plied the canal.

These barges were a far cry from the huge iron vessels which ply The Rhine today; made entirely of wood they more like boats; they had a sail as well as a motor and a barracks like hut at the end where the captain and his family lived. They were a regular sight on the canal especially in the summer and autumn, when they stopped at the windmill, where the sacks of ground rye and wheat were loaded into the hold with a manual winch crane. Afterwards they travelled a few kilometers along the canal to pull up at the village.

The village consisted of a dozen houses plus a baker, a blacksmith, two cafes and a few shops nestled around a small lake at the end of the canal – where the barges could turn around before heading back down the canal. They usually pulled up at the village for a night or two before commencing the return journey. The cafes did a good trade.


The windmill was a ubiquitous part of a seemingly timeless pre-industrial  landscape. Towering above the fields and the village, the sound of its long sweeping blades, canvas and wood, turning in the wind clock- like, in winter and summer, rain or shine, was an integral part of the village identity – and since there was no church, it didn’t have to compete with the spires of God. Perhaps it was the work of a God whose ways were mysterious.  

During winters, when the canal and lake froze solid, everyone donned their skates. The windmill, heavy with snow and ice, loomed over the fairy tale scene of adults and children ice skating.

In the spring the cows were let out onto the rich green fields; the flowers came out and the storks appeared and the geese departed for the arctic circle.

In the summers, the kids swam in the canal and fished.

Anya and her brother drank the water from the canal. It was clean, unpolluted. It was pumped into the house with a hand pump.

When the air was still and no wind blew, there was silence. A silence punctuated by the sounds of lowing cows and neighing horses and by birdsong and sometimes the motor sounds of the barges or the local bus. No one had a motor car. People walked or rode a bike.


Then one day in 1950’s, a tractor appeared. It drew a lot of interest.

Progress was on the march.

The family moved to the distant Rotterdam and thereby joined the ranks of thousands of other immigrants for whom Rotterdam was a place of hope; a place to find a better life. And that was easy to define then: a life where Anya’s father had a 9-5 job and could come home and spend his evenings and weekends with his family; a life where the children had access to a good education and health care.  

And life for most people became better as the economy grew, wages rose, and the consumer society appeared. The benefits were obvious. The Netherlands had recovered through the dint of hard work and sacrifice.

The windmills, rendered obsolete as their work was taken over by machines driven by petrol and electricity were pulled down: 9000 of them, with no thought given to their heritage value.

The windmill was pulled down (along with 9000 elsewhere in The Netherlands).

Windmill organizations sprung into existence, determined to preserve these precious icons from the past and so the windmill in the Southern Corridor Park was saved for posterity: a lonely artefact from the past marooned between row upon of mind numbing row apartment blocks and suburbs on one side – and the noise and exhaust fumes of one of the busiest highways in Europe on the other.

When I stopped at the windmill I was trying to find some little piece of the past, some fragment of a lost time: the memories of a family consigned to the past and relived during the final hours of an unknown elderly woman. We’re a strange compilation we human beings of memories, desires, hopes and ambitions. We go in search of a better life and we find it and then reflect upon what we have lost. For Anya’s mother, nearing the end of her life, the 9 years she had lived in the village, most of the time alone with her three children, acquired a meaning, a reverence, which they had never had before. She had survived the war and seeing her best friend, a Jew being loaded into a train along with her family. Her father, a train driver, had a fair idea of what was happening. When the train drivers went on strike, she along with the rest of the family had gone underground. She had survived but left adrift, spiritually homeless, her past a long tale of suffering.

And then the village, the windmill. A new life and new hope and after the long years of the Great Depression followed the Nazi occupation; the simple things were wonders: peace, stability and children – three of them and one of them Anya, born wild. A happy kid but later….mad! Didn’t want to get married and settle down but instead travelled – alone – to distant places Turkey, Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Nepal…and in her last days, the mother and her mad daughter journeyed back to those days in the village ….and the windmill, its turning blades like the hands of a clock, marking the passing of time…


Originally there were an estimated 10, 000 windmills in The Netherlands, many of them over 30 metres high. 



Inside like a giant clockwork


On a visit (by bike) to Anya’s village – ‘Spijkerboor’ -in the north of The Netherlands


Where the canal and windmill used to be. 


Cafe ‘t Keepunt. One of the original cafes on the lake where the barges stopped before turning around and going back down the canal.  ‘Keerpunt’ means literally ‘turning aroud place’. The lake was filled in at the same time as the canal. 


Spijkerboor in 1923 – the cafe and lake behind it. 


Thank you for looking at my site, cheers, Peter