Netherlands – Friesland – Stavoren To Leeuwarden

THE traveler from Amsterdam enters Free Frisia at Stavoren, once the home of kings and now a mere haven, A little steamer carries the passengers from Enkhuisen, while the cattle trucks and vans of merchandise cross the Zuyder Zee in a huge railway raft. The steamer takes an hour or a little longer—time enough to have lunch on deck if it is fine, and watch Enkhuisen fading into nothingness and Stavoren rising from the sea.

Before the thirteenth century the Zuyder Zee consisted only of Lake Flevo, south of Stavoren and Enkhuisen, so that our passage then would have been made on land. But in 1282 came a great tempest which drove the German ocean over the north-west shores of Holland, insulating Texel and pouring over the low land between Holland and Fries-land. The scheme now in contemplation to drain the Zuyder Zee proposes a dam from Enkhuisen to Piaam, thus re-claiming some 1,350,000 acres for meadow land. Since what man has done man can do, there is little doubt but that the Dutch will carry through this great project.

Concerning Stavoren there is now but one thing to say, and no writer on Holland has had the temerity to avoid saying it. That thing is the story of the widow and the sandbank. It seems that at Stavoren in its palmy days was a wealthy widow shipowner, who once gave instructions to one of her captains, bound for a foreign port, that he should bring back the most valuable and precious thing to be found there, in exchange for the outward cargo. The widow expected I know not what—ivory, perhaps, or pea-cocks, or chrysoprase—and when the captain brought only grain, she was so incensed that, though the poor of Stavoren implored her to give it them, she bade him forthwith throw it overboard. This he did, and the corn being cursed there sprang up on that spot a sandbank which gradually ruined the harbour and the town. The bank is called The Widow’s Corn to this day.

It was near Stavoren that M. Havard engaged in a pleasant and improving conversation with a lock-keeper who had fought with France, and from him learned some curious things about Friesland customs. I quote a little : ” When a wife has given birth to a boy and added a son to Friesland, all her female friends come to see her and drink in her room the brandewyn, which is handed round in a special cup or goblet. Each woman brings with her a large tart, all of which are laid out in the room—sometimes they number as many as thirty. The more there are and the finer the cakes the better, because that proves the number of friends. A few days later the new-born Frieslander is taken to church, all the girls from twelve years old accompanying the child and carrying it each in turn. As soon as they reach the church the child is handed to the father, who presents it for baptism. Not a girl in the place would renounce her right to take part in the little procession, for it is a subject of boasting when she marries to be able to say, ‘I have accompanied this and that child to its baptism’. Besides, it is supposed to ensure happiness, and that she in her turn will have a goodly number of little ones.

Well and how about betrothals ?’ ‘ Ah ! ha ! that’s another thing. The girl chooses the lad. You know the old proverb, ‘ There are only two things a girl chooses herself—her potatoes and her lover’. You can well imagine how such things begin. They see each other at the kermis, or in the street, or fields. Then one fine day the lad feels his heart beating louder than usual. In the evening he puts on his best coat, and goes up to the house where the girl lives.

” The father and mother give him a welcome, which the girls smile at, and nudge each other. No one refers to the reason for his visit, though of course it is well known why he is there. At last, when bedtime comes, the children retire—even the father and mother go to their room—and the girl is left alone at the fireside with the young man.

” They speak of this and that, and everything, but not a word of love is uttered. If the girl lets the fire go down, it is a sign she does not care for the lad, and won’t have him for a husband. If, on the contrary, she heaps fuel on the fire, he knows that she loves him and means to accept him for her affianced husband. In the first case, all the poor lad has to do is to open the door and retire, and never put his foot in the house again. But, in the other, he knows it is all right, and from that day forward he is treated as if he belonged to the family.’

“‘ And how long does the engagement last ?’

” Oh, about as long as everywhere else—two, three years, more or less, and that is the happiest time of their lives. The lad takes his girl about everywhere; they go to the kermis, skate, and amuse themselves, and no one troubles or inquires about them. Even the girl’s parents allow her to go about with her lover without asking any questions. ”

A Dutch proverb says, “Take a Brabant sheep, a Guelderland ox, a Flemish capon and a Frisian cow “. The taking of the Frisian cow certainly presents few difficulties, for the surface of Friesland is speckled thickly with that gentle animal—ample in size and black and white in hue. The only creatures that one sees from the carriage windows on the railway journey are cows in the fields and plovers above them. Now and then a man in his blue linen coat, now and then a heron ; but cows always and plovers always. Never a bullock. The meadows of Holland are a female republic. Perkin Middlewick (in Our Boys) had made so much money out of pork that whenever he met a pig he was tempted to raise his hat the Dutch, especially of North Holland and Friesland, should do equal homage to their friend the cow. Edam acknowledges the obligation in her municipal escutcheon.

Stavoren may be dull and unalluring, but not so Hindeloopen, the third station on the railway to Leeuwarden, where we shall stay. At Hindeloopen the journey should be broken for two or three hours. Should, nay must. Hindeloopen (which means stag hunt) has been called the Museum of Holland. All that is most picturesque in Dutch furniture and costume comes from this little town—or professes to do so, for the manufacture of spurious Hindeloopen cradles and stoofjes, chairs and cupboards, is probably a recognised industry.

In the museum at Leeuwarden are two rooms arranged and furnished exactly in the genuine Hindeloopen manner, and they are exceedingly charming and gay. The smaller of the two has the ordinary blue and white Dutch tiles, with scriptural or other subjects, around the walls to the height of six feet ; above them are pure white tiles, to the ceiling, with an occasional delicate blue pattern. The floor is of red and brown tiles. All the furniture is painted very gaily upon a cream or white background—with a gaiety that has a touch of the Orient in it. The bed is hidden behind painted woodwork in the wall, like a berth, and is gained by a little flight of movable steps, also radiant. I never saw so happy a room. On the wall is a cabinet of curios and silver ornaments.

The larger room is similar but more costly. On the wall are fine Delft plates, and seated at the table are wax Hindeloopeners : a man with a clay pipe and tobacco box, wearing a long flowered waistcoat, a crossed white neck-cloth and black coat and hat—not unlike a Quaker in festival attire ; and his neat and very picturesque women folk are around him. In the cradle, enshrined in ornamentations, is a Hindeloopen baby. More old silver and shining brass here and there, and the same resolute cheer-fulness of colouring everywhere. Some of the houses in which such rooms were found still stand at Hindeloopen.

The Dutch once liked puns, and perhaps still do so. Again and again in their old inscriptions one finds experiments in the punning art. On the church of Hindeloopen, for example, are these lines :

Des heeren woord Met aandacht hoort Komt daartoe met.hoopen Als hinden loopen.

The poet must have had a drop of Salvationist blood in his veins, for only among General Booth’s enthusiastic followers do we look for such spirited invitations. The verses call upon worshippers to run together like deer to hear the word of God.

Within the great church, among other interesting things, are a large number of biers. These also are decorated according to the pretty Hindeloopen usage, one for the dead of each trade. Order even in death. The Hindeloopen baker who has breathed his last must be carried to the grave on the bakers’ bier, or the proprieties will wince.

After Hindeloopen the first town of importance on the way to Leeuwarden is Sneek ; and Sneek is not important. But Sneek has a water-gate of quaint symmetrical charm, with two little spires—the least little bit like the infant child of the Amsterdam Gate at Haarlem. In common with so many Frisian towns Sneek has suffered from flood. A disastrous inundation overwhelmed her on the evening of All Saints’ Day in 1825, when the dykes were broken and the water rushed in to the height of five feet. Such must be great times_ of triumph for the floating population, who, like the sailor in the old ballad of the sea, may well pity the unfortunate and insecure dwellers in houses. What the number of Friesland’s floating population is I do not know; but it must be very large. Many barges and tjalcks are both the birthplace and deathplace of their owners, who know no other home. The cabins are not less intimately cared for and decorated than the sitting-rooms of Volendam and Marken.

We saw at Edam certain odd characters formed in Nature’s wayward moods. Sneek also possessed a giant named Lange Jacob, who was eight feet tall and the husband of Korte Jannetje (Little Jenny), who was just half that height. People came from great distances to see this couple. And at Sneek, in the church of St. Martin, is buried a giant of more renown and prowess—Peter van Heemstra, or ” Lange Pier ” as he was called from his inches, a sea ravener of notable ferocity, whose two-handed sword is preserved at Leeuwarden—although, as M. Havard says, what useful purpose a two-handed sword can serve to an admiral on a small ship baffles reflection.

Bolsward, Sneek’s neighbour, is another amphibious town, with a very charming stadhuis in red and white, crowned by an Oriental bell tower completely out of keeping with the modern Frisian who hears its voice. This constant occurrence of Oriental freakishness in the architecture of Dutch towns, in contrast with Dutch occidental four-square simplicity and plainness of character, is an effect to which one never quite grows accustomed.

Bolsward’s church, which is paved with tomb-stones, among them some very rich ones in high relief—too high for the comfort of the desecrating foot—has a fine carved pulpit, some oak stalls of great antiquity and an imposing bell tower.

It is claimed that the Frisians were the first Europeans to smoke pipes. Whether or not that is the case, the Dutch are now the greatest smokers. Recent statistics show that whereas the annual consumption of tobacco by every inhabitant of Great Britain and Ireland is 1.34 lb., and of Germany 3 lb., that of the Dutch is 7 lb. Putting the smoking population at 30 per cent. of the total—allowing thus for women, children and non-smokers—this means that every Dutch smoker consumes about eight ounces of tobacco a week, or a little more than an ounce a day.

I excepted women and children, but that is wrong. The boys smoke too—sometimes pipes, oftenest cigars. At a music hall at The Hague I watched a contest in generosity between two friends in a family party as to which should supply a small boy in sailor suit, evidently the son of the host, with a cigar. Both won.

Fell, writing in 1801, says that the Dutch, although smoke dried, were not then smoking so much as they had done twenty years before. The Dutchmen, he says, ” of the lower classes of society, and not a few in the higher walks of life, carry in their pockets the whole apparatus which is necessary for smoking :—a box of enormous size, which frequently contains half a pound of tobacco; a pipe of clay or ivory, according to the fancy or wealth of the possessor ; if the latter, instruments to clean it ; a pricker to remove obstructions from the tube of the pipe; a cover of brass wire for the bowl, to prevent the ashes or sparks of the tobacco from flying out ; and sometimes a tinder. box, or bottle of phosphorus, to procure fire, in case none is at hand.

“The excuse of the Dutch for their lavish attachment to tobacco, in the most offensive form in which it can be exhibited, is, that the smoke of this transatlantic weed preserves them from many disorders to which they are liable from the moisture of the atmosphere of their country, and enables them to bear cold and wet without inconvenience.”

Fell supports this curious theory by relating that when, soaked by a storm, he arrived at an inn at Overschie, the landlord offered him a pipe of tobacco to prevent any bad consequences. Fell, however, having none of his friend Charles Lamb’s affection for the friendly traitress, declined it with asperity.

Ireland has an ingenious theory to account for the addiction of the Dutch to tobacco. It is, he says, the succedaneum to purify the unwholesome exhalations of the canals. “A Dutchman’s taciturnity forbids his complaining; so that all his waking hours are silently employed in casting forth the filthy puff of the weed, to dispel the more filthy stench of the canal.”

Ireland’s view was probably an invention ; but this I know, that the Dutch cigar and the Dutch atmosphere are singularly well adapted to each other. I brought home a box of a brand which was agreeable in Holland, and they were unendurable in England.

The cigar is the national medium for consuming tobacco, cigarettes being practically unknown, and pipes rare in the streets. My experience of the Dutch cigar is that it is a very harmless luxury and a very persuasive one. After a little while it becomes second nature to drop into a tobacconist’s and slip a dozen cigars into one’s pocket, at a cost of a few pence ; and the cigars being there, it is another case of second nature to smoke them practically continuously. Of these cigars, which range in price from a few cents to a few pence each, there are hundreds if not thousands of varieties.

The number of tobacconists in Holland must be enormous. Almost every other shop window in Amsterdam is a mass of cigars. The pretty French custom of giving tobacco licences to the widows of soldiers is not adopted here ; indeed, I do not see that it could be, for the army is only 100,000 strong. In times of stress it might perhaps be advisable to send the tobacconists out to fight, and keep the soldiers to mind as many of their shops as could be managed, shutting up the rest.