The dunes are at times barren and windswept, at others lush and in bloom, but always absolutely stunning!
If there’s anything at all natural in this country created not by God but the Dutch, then it’s the dunes, which stretch all along the west coast from Cadzand in Zeeland to Den Helder in North Holland and the islands beyond. For the most part, they form a narrow strip no more than a couple of kilometres wide, but at Bergen they suddenly broaden out to form one of the largest coastal-dune landscapes in Europe, reaching 5 km inland to Schoorl.
Not only do the dunes become broader at Bergen, the composition of the sand changes, too. South of Bergen aan Zee, the sand has a blonde colour and is rich in calcium and iron oxide. To the north, the sand is a paler, whitish grey and contains far less calcium. It is believed that this is because the southern sand was deposited by the Rhine river and the northern sand comes from seabed that Rhine deposits haven’t reached.
The difference can also clearly be seen by looking at the vegetation: less calcium means more acidic and suitable for heathland plants like crowberry and common heather which you’ll find north of Bergen aan Zee only; more calcium and other nutrients in the sands to the south means the dunescape is more lush and much greener, with a greater variety of plant life, including wild flowers like the pretty burnet rose.
The dunes as we see them today are referred to as young dunes and are only about 1,000 years old. The story begins at the end of the last ice age, however, about 18,000 years ago when an ice cap covered much of northern Europe. As the huge amounts of ice started to melt, the cap gradually receded to reveal land where the North Sea now is. Named after the 17th century Dutch fishing boats called Doggers, Doggerland was mostly tundra and connected the east coast of the British Isles to the Netherlands. North Sea fishermen have caught plenty of evidence in their nets over the years of habitation, both animal and human. But sea levels rose still further, and all that remains today is Dogger Bank, a sandbank about 100 km off the coast of England that features on BBC radio’s famous shipping forecast.
As Doggerland was gradually swallowed up by the North Sea and the northwest of Europe flooded, tides and currents deposited sand to form beach ridges west of and in the coastal region of what is Holland today. The sea level rose so fast during this period, about a meter per century, that the ridges disappeared as readily as they appeared, but by about 4,800 B.C. as the rate of sea-level rise decreased to a more moderate 15 centimetres every 100 years and the sea reached its most easterly point, they had joined together to form a continuous coastline. Sand continued to be brought by the sea and whipped up by the wind and the ensuing dunes grew seaward as far as ten kilometres.
The beach ridges were dry and there’s evidence of pre-historic settlements, but not much can be easily seen of them today. Many towns in Holland are built on them, though, like Alkmaar, and Bergen is built on three smaller beach ridges. The oldest relic found here is a burial urn that dates to approx. 2000 B.C. and can be admired at ‘t Sterkenhuis.
As climate change slowed, then, the coastline of Holland became more stable and settled towards the position it’s in now. The earliest maps of the region are Roman and show that in about 50 B.C. the North Holland peninsula was still very much a part of Fisia and its coast lay a few kilometres farther west than it does today. Winds and the sea’s currents eroded the beach ridges, but at the same time, the prevailing winds blew the sand inland. The result of this play reminiscent of cat and mouse is that the coastline moved eastward and the dunes on it grew broader and taller. By about 1600, we had the young dunes you see today and it is around then that they became a true pillar of Dutch water management, which they still are today.
The dunes at Bergen belonged to the Lord of Bergen, who extended hunting and other rights as he saw fit. But the dunes were a much more barren landscape than they are now, and dunes being dunes, they still liked to wander. After a heavy storm, and we get at least two or three a year, it wasn’t unheard of for houses and farms on the edge of the dunes to be completely buried in sand. The solution was to plant trees and lots of marram grass, which helps to keep the sand in its place. Over the centuries, lots of money has been spent keeping the dunes in check, and it’s an ongoing project.
Other than sand for construction and clean drinking water (used to make beer, especially in Haarlem), the economic value of the dunes was generally limited to rabbits, which had to be hunted anyway because they damaged the dunes, and timber. The end of the 18th century, however, saw the emergence of coastal, spa-like holidays and Mayor Van Reenen of Bergen and his wife Marie Amalie Dorothea van Reenen-Völter saw an opportunity and took the initiative to build a small village in the dunes on the coast. Bergen aan Zee was born and Bergen’s tourist industry was a fact.
It’s a wonderful walk from Bergen to Bergen aan Zee through the dunes. It takes about two hours (or as long as you like) and you’ll enjoy a unique experience. I suggest you start at Duinvermaak and simply follow the signposts. If you stray off the main paths and are worried you’re lost, find a high spot and look for a tower – it’s Huize Glory in Bergen aan Zee. Also, at any time after midday, simply keep the sun on your right as you walk and you’ll inevitably get back to (the road to) Bergen.
Go for a walk south of the Zeeweg and you’re likely to come face to face with Highland cattle imported from the Scottish Highlands (as with all Scots, leave them alone and they’ll leave you alone, but if you go anywhere near their calfs, you’re likely a goner) and ponies imported from Exmoor, England. They’ve been introduced here to compensate for the dwindling rabbit population as a result of diseases such as myxomatosis and RHD. Numbers have fallen 90% and without the rabbits, there is nothing to eat the grasses and shrubbery in the dunes, which were becoming overgrown. The big grazers now keep the undergrowth in check. It’s a mighty sight to see them roaming about!
Photography: Robin Glendenning, Kevin Mansell, Rijksmuseum.