We’ve been visiting Drenthe, a remote province in the wilds of far north-east Netherlands. They do have internet access, but the whole point of Drenthe, the most sparsely populated part of a crowded country, is that there’s not much happening there.
It has old farms and forests, sheep and Shetland ponies and ‘hunnebedden’ – ancient piles of rocks which are prehistoric burial sites. The main town Emmen has a modest zoo, and the village of Exloo has Gnome World (Kabouter Wereld) which, very sad to say, was closed on the day I pedalled past.
The Dutch flock to Drenthe in the summer because it has great ‘campings’ and brilliant cycling infrastructure with bike paths everywhere. Even in the off-season, at the weekend cafe terraces were crammed with lycra loonies downing beer, coffee and icecream earned by a few hours’ fanging around the Drenthe cycle paths.
We particularly went there to visit the Frederiksoord Kolonie, an experiment in social engineering we’d read about in Suzanna Jansen’s excellent book The Paupers’ Paradise, a family history. Sorry, it’s only available in Dutch, but take my word for it, it’s a good read. The Dutch writer discovered that her ancestors came from Veenhuizen and set out to trace the story of this settlement…When Napoleon lost 0-1 at Waterloo, French control of Holland ended, leaving behind an impoverished population. Beggars, tramps, returned soldiers and other undesirables crowded the towns. So well-meaning gentlemen founded the Maatschappij van Weldadigheid (“Society of Benevolence”). From 1818-1823 some 10,000 poor settlers were brought to three settlements in Drenthe, where they were provided with cottages, church, schools and agricultural implements. They were instructed to till the soil, raise healthy rosy-cheeked children and generally make a wonderful new life.
Predictably with the benefit of hindsight, this Veenhuizen (Fen Houses) project was not an unqualified success. Reluctant city settlers with no farming experience were unlikely to prosper on boggy land nobody else wanted, and Frederiksoord became more like a prison than a paradise.
Most of the wooden cottages built for the colonists have now been demolished, but one example has been preserved at the Koloniemuseum, furnished as it would have been in 1818. I didn’t realise they had plastic tablecloths back then – the Kolonie was way ahead of its time. The museum runs a short (Dutch language) film about the project, and in the grounds outside a hedge maze has been erected for kids to get lost in.
The pretty village of Frederiksoord had more to offer. The stately homes of the benefactors and the more modest Kolonie houses of the officials and overseers have been converted to very desirable residences set in forest and farmland.
A lady emerged barefoot from her garden when she saw us photographing her home at the end of a shady lane. It was formerly the communal kitchen, she proudly told us, the oldest Kolonie building still standing. ‘Ýou have to taste our spring water.’ She lowered a metal bucket into the well. ‘The oldest well in the Kolonie. The water is always 4-5 degrees.’ The dog keenly put it to the test, and when he’d drunk his fill it was our turn to scoop it up with cupped hands. Yes it was lovely water, cool, fresh, 4-5 degrees and hardly any doggy aftertaste.