A thin smudge of trees along a flat horizon frames bright green polders, beneath grey tumbling clouds in a misty sky. Welcome to Alphen aan den Rijn, a nondescript village turned provincial town in the Heart of Holland.
From the deck of our rented farmstead we look across the little fields, the veldt, to the small ships and barges gliding silently along the River Gouwe. Going south to Gouda and then Rotterdam, the Maas and Belgium and Germany. The world beyond. North to the Rhine and Utrecht, Dutch distribution centres and container docks. Containers go one way and sand or gravel the other.
Alphen straddles the River Rhine near its junction with the Gouwe, about thirty kilometers from the North Sea – a day’s march for a Roman army. Which is actually quite appropriate because once here stood an imperial Castellum built after Caligula’s visit to the edge of his Empire, marked by the Rhine itself, in the year 40 CE.
Albaniana as it was called, controlled the confluence of the small local river Aar and the frontier of the Rhine. The Aar today is a very minor canal, not a river at all. Most of it is piped underground, but its legacy lives on in place names like the Aarhof (Alphen’s central shopping centre) and Ter Aar ( a village to the North).
The newer Aar Canal heads due north to the Amstel and Amsterdam, connecting the Old Rhine with the trade centres of Holland-Nord and the North Sea.
A part of the Castellum wall and a gate were excavated ten years ago, and Roman coins and other artefacts have been found here. The Batavian revolt (around 70 CE) had some impact and the Romans had to rebuild their fort.
Nearby, a short bike ride from our flat, is a modern open-air museum called the Archeon, where ancient and medieval buildings provide a setting for kids to learn and young adults to act out role plays and fancy dress ups.
The narrow road from the Archeon to the farms around our place is called the Rietveld Pad. Riet means “reeds” and “veld” is the fields or countryside. Pad is path. So here were once the fields of reeds that the farmers harvested for all those thatched roofs which kept the peasants dry and the burghers too. A lucrative trade a few hundred years ago, with the bundles of thatch carried into Alphen to be shipped up and down the Rhine.
These days the thatch is still grown and harvested in select rietveldts, but not around here. A traditional thatched roof for a new or rebuilt house would cost upwards of 30,000 euros and it’s become a very specialised trade. It’s kind of surprising how many thatched roofs you do see, including a lot in Boskoop just across there on the Gouwe. They’re a signifier of wealth and middle class comfort, as well as symbols of Dutch history.
The rivers here came to prominence in the Middle Ages when the whole northern European trade route wound down from Amsterdam through the Vecht to Utrecht, then across the Rhine to here and down to the Maas, Dordrecht, Flanders, Bruges and France. Another route, from Amsterdam and Haarlem, via the Haarlemmermeer and the Aarkanaal gave an alternative to avoid the Bishops of Utrecht when they were in conflict with the Counts of Holland, based in Leiden.
The whole of the Lowlands, below sea level much of it, was criss-crossed with rivers, seas, lakes, big kanaals, little kades, all dividing the landscape into polders and towns protected by dykes. The water pumped up by thousands of wind mills into larger canals that fed into the main rivers that eventually wandered to the sea. The landscape itself formed by those rivers and estuaries and swamps millennia ago. As the farm communities dug out the peat – for fires and walls – the land was drained and so sank further and increased the risk of flooding from the huge rivers flooding down from France and Germany. Not to mention the North Sea.
It’s still like that today, just a bit more built up, rather more technically advanced and totally man made.
Sitting in the pale sun I think how many ships plied that river over there, gliding up and down under sail or pulled by horses. Hauling timber and wool from the Baltic and herring from the Zuider Zee ports, going south. And wine or cloth or manufactured goods from France or even Italy, going north as far as Russia. For nearly a thousand years. And still they trade, quietly and consistently, just beyond the polders grazed by sheep and alpacas and dairy cows. Or filled with swans and geese that migrate here from the north but don’t go further south anymore, because global warming has made the green heart a perfect landing place for birds.