Netherlands – Leeuwarden And Neighbourhood

IN an hour or two the train brings us to Leeuwarden, between flat green meadows unrelieved save for the frequent isolated homesteads, in which farm house, dairy, barn, cow stalls and stable are all under one great roof that starts almost from the ground. On the Essex flats the homesteads have barns and sheltering trees to keep them company : here it is one house and a mere hedge of saplings or none at all. For the rest—cows and plovers, plovers and cows.

Friesland’s capital, Leeuwarden, might be described as an English market town, such as Horsham in Sussex, scoured and carried out to its highest power, rather than a small city. The cattle trade of Friesland has here its head-quarters, and a farmer needing agricultural implements must fare to Leeuwarden to buy them. The Frisian farmer certainly does need them, for it is his habit to take three crops of short hay off his meadows, rather than one crop of long hay in the English manner.

Not only cattle but also horses are sold in Leeuwarden market. The Frisian horse is a noble animal, truly the friend of man ; and the Frisians are fond of horses and indulge both in racing and in trotting—or “hardraverij ” as they pleasantly call it. I made a close friend of a Frisian mare on the steamer from Rotterdam to Dort. At Dort I had to leave her, for she was bound for Nymwegen. A most charming creature.

Leeuwarden is large and prosperous and healthy. What one misses in it is any sense of intimate cosiness. One seems to be nearer the elements, farther from the ingratiating works of man, than hitherto in any Dutch town. The strong air, the openness of land, the 180 degrees of sky, the northern sharpness, all are far removed from the solace of the chimney corner. It is a Spartan people, preferring hard health to overcoats ; and the streets and houses reflect this temperament. They are clean and strong and bare—no huddling or niggling architecture. Everything also is bright, the effect largely of paint, but there must. be something very antiseptic in this Frisian atmosphere.

The young women of Leeuwarden—the fair Frisians—are tall and strong and fresh looking ; not exactly beautiful but very pleasant. “There go good wives and good mothers,” one says. Their Amazonian air is accentuated by the casque of gold or silver which fits tightly over their heads and gleams through its lace covering : perhaps the most curious head-dress in this country of elaborate head. dresses, and never so curious as when, on Sundays, an ordinary black bonnet, bristling with feathers and jet, is mounted on the top of it. That, however, is a refinement practised only by the middle-aged and elderly women; the young women wear either the casque or a hat, never both. If one climbs the Oldehof and looks down on the city on a sunny day—as I did—the glint of a metal casque continually catches the eye. These headdresses are of some value, and are handed on from mother to daughter for generations. No Dutch woman is ever too poor to lay by a little jewellery; and many a domestic servant carries, I am told, twenty pounds worth of goldsmith’s work upon her.

Once Leeuwarden was famous for its goldsmiths and silversmiths, but the interest in precious metal work is not what it was. Many of the little silver ornaments—the windmills, and houses, and wagons, and boats—which once decorated Dutch sitting-rooms as a matter of course, and are now prized by collectors, were made in Leeuwarden.

The city’s architectural jewel is the Chancellerie, a very ornate but quite successful building dating from the sixteenth century : first the residence of the Chancellors, recently a prison, and now the Record Office of Friesland. Not until the Middelburg stadhuis shall we see anything more cheerfully gay and decorative. The little Weigh House is in its own way very charming. But for gravity one must go to the Oldehof, a sombre tower on the ramparts of the city. Once the sea washed its very walls.

To the ordinary traveller the most interesting things in the Leeuwarden museum, which is opposite the Chancellerie, are the Hindeloopen rooms which I have described in the last chapter ; but to the antiquary it offers great entertainment. Among ancient relics which the spade has revealed are some very early Frisian tobacco pipes. Among the pictures, for the most part very poor, is a dashing Carolus Duran and a very beautiful little Daubigny.

Affiliated to the museum is one of the best collections of Delft china in Holland—a wonderful banquet of blue. This alone makes it necessary to visit Leeuwarden.

All about Leeuwarden the boys have jumping poles for the ditches, and you may see dozens at a time, after school, leaping backwards and forwards over the streams, like frogs. Children abound in Friesland : the towns are filled with boys and girls ; but one sees few babies. In Holland the very old and the very young are alike invisible.

One of the first things that I noticed at Leeuwarden was the presence of a new bird. Hitherto I had seen only the familiar birds that we know at home, except for a stork here and there and more herons than one catches sight of in England save in the neighbourhood of one of our infrequent heronries. But at Leeuwarden you find, sweeping and plaining over the canals, the beautiful tern, otherwise known as the sea swallow, white and powerful and delicately graceful, and possessed of a double portion of the melancholy of birds of the sea. Of the bittern, which is said to boom continually over the Fries-land meres, I caught no glimpse and heard no sound.

From Leeuwarden I rode one Sunday morning by the steam-tram to St. Jacobie Parochie, a little village in the extreme north-west, where I proposed to take a walk upon the great dyke. It was a chilly morning, and I was glad to be inside the compartment as we rattled along the road. The only other occupant was a young minister in a white tie, puffing comfortably at his cigar, which in the manner of so many Dutchmen he seemed to eat as he smoked. For a while we were raced- -and for a few yards beaten—by two jolly boys in a barrow drawn by a pair of gallant dogs who foamed past us ventre I terre with six inches of flapping tongue.

On my last visit to Holland, in 1922, I saw very few dogs of burden, and none at all in Amsterdam, and I learned that their use has been much discouraged, both by taxation and by humanitarians. I am sorry for this, as the dogs rarely looked distressed, and work is good for every-one.

It was on this little journey to St. Jacobie Parochie that I saw my first stork. Storks’ nests there had been in plenty, but all were empty. But at Wier, close to St. Jacobie Parochie, was a nest on a pole beside the road, and on this nest was a stork. The Dutch, I think, have no more endearing trait than their kindness to this bird. Once at any rate their solicitude was grotesque, although serviceable, for Ireland tells of a young stork with a broken leg for which a wooden leg was substituted. Upon this jury limb the bird lived happily for thirty years.

The stork alone among Dutch birds is sacred, but he is not alone in feeling secure. The fowler is no longer a Common object of the country, as he seems to have been in Albert Cuyp’s day, when he returned in the golden evening laden with game—for Jan Weenix to paint.

St. Jacobie Parochie on a fine Sunday morning is no place for a sensitive man. The whole of the male population of the village had assembled by the church—not, I fancy, with any intention of entering it—and every eye among them probed me like a corkscrew. It is an out of the world spot, to which it is possible no foreigner ever before penetrated, and since their country was a show to me I had no right to object to serve as a show to them. But such scrutiny is not comfortable. I hastened to the sea.

One reaches the sea by a path across the fields to an inner dyke with a high road upon it, and then by another footpath, or paths, beside green ditches, to the ultimate dyke which holds Neptune in check. As I walked I was continually conscious of heavy splashes just ahead of me, which for a while I put down to water-rats. But chancing to stand still I was presently aware of the proximity of a huge green frog, the largest I have ever seen, who sat, solid as a paper weight, close beside me, with one eye glittering upon me and the other upon the security of the water, into which he j umped at a movement of my hand. Walking then more warily I saw that the banks on either side were populous with these monsters ; and sometimes it needed only a flourish of the handkerchief to send a dozer simultaneously into the ditch. I am glad we have not such frogs at home. A little frog is an adorable creature, but a frog half-way to realising his bovine ambition is a monster.

The sea dyke is many feet high. Its lowest visible stratum is of black stones, beneath the sea-level ; then a stratum of large red bricks ; then turf. The willow branches are invisible, within. The land hereabout is undoubtedly some distance below sea-level, but it is impossible either here or anywhere in Holland to believe in the old and venerable story of the dyke plugged by an heroic thumb to the exclusion of the ocean and the safety of the nation.

As I lay on the bank in the sun, listening to a thousand larks, with all Friesland on one hand and the pearl grey sea on the other, a passer-by stopped and asked me a question which I failed to understand. My reply conveyed my nationality to him. ” Ah,” he said, ” Eenglish. Do it well with you ? ” I said that it did excellently well. He walked on until he met half a dozen other men, some hundred yards away, when I saw him pointing to me and telling them of the long conversation he had been enjoying with a in pay own difficult tongue. It was quite clear from their interest that the others were conscious of the honour of having a real linguist among them.

Another day I went to Harlingen. I had intended to reach the town by steam-tram, but the time table was deceptive and the engine stopped permanently at a station two or three miles away. Fortunately, however, a curtained brake was passing, and into this I sprang, joining two women and a dominie, and together we ambled very deliberately into the quiet seaport. Harlingen is a double harbour—inland and maritime. Barges from all parts of Friesland lie there, transferring their goods a few yards to the ocean-going ships bound for England and the world, although Friesland does not now export her produce as once she did. Thirty years ago much of our butter and beef and poultry sailed from Harlingen.

The town lies in the savour of the sea. Masts rise above the houses, ship-chandlers’ shops send forth the agreeable scent of tar and cordage, sailors and stevedores lounge against posts as only those that follow the sea can do. I had some beef and bread, in the Dutch midday manner, in the upper room of an inn overlooking the harbour, while two shipping-clerks played a dreary game of billiards. Beyond the dyke lay the empty grey sea, with Texel or Vlieland a faint dark line on the horizon. Nothing in the town suggested the twentieth century, or indeed any century. Time was not.

I wish that Mr. Bos had been living, that I might have called upon him and seen his pictures, as M. Havard did. But he is no more, and I found no one to tell me of the fate of his collection. Possibly it is still to be seen : certainly other visitors to Harlingen should be more energetic than I was, and make sure. Here is M. Havard’s account of Mr. Bos and an evening at his house : ” Mr. Bos started in life as a farm-boy—then became an assistant in a shop. Instead of spending his money at the beer-houses he purchased books. He educated himself, and being provident, steady, industrious, he soon collected sufficient capital to start in business on his own account, which he did as a small cheesemonger ; but in time his business prospered, and to such an extent that one day he awoke to find himself one of the greatest and richest merchants of Harlingen.

” Many under these circumstances would have considered rest was not undeserved ; but Mr. Bos thought otherwise. He became passionately fond of the arts. Instead of purchasing stock he bought pictures, then the books necessary to understand them, and what with picking up an engraving here and a painting there he soon became possessed of a most interesting collection, and of an artistic knowledge sufficient for all purposes. But to appreciate the virtue (the term is not too strong) of this amiable man, one should know the difficulties he had to surmount before gaining his position. It is no joke when one lives in a town like Harlingen to act differently from other people. Tongues are as well hung there as in any small French town. Instead of encouraging this brave collector, they laughed at and ridiculed him. His taste for the arts was regarded as a mania. In fact, he was looked upon as a madman, and even to this day, notwithstanding his successful career, he is looked upon as no better than a lunatic. Happily a taste for art gives one joys that make the remarks of fools and idiots pass like water off a duck’s back.

” When we called on Mr. Bos he was absent ; but as soon as Madame Bos was made acquainted with our names we received a most cordial reception. She is, however, a most charming woman, combining both amiability and affability, with a venerable appearance ; and, notwithstanding her immense fortune and gold plate, still wears the large Frison cap of the good old times. She was anxious to do the honours of the collection in person, and immediately sent for her son, so that we might receive every information.

“Mr. Bos returned home the same evening, and at once came on board, and would not leave until we had promised to spend the evening at his house, which we did in the Frison fashion–that is to say, that whilst examining the pictures we were compelled to devour sundry plates of soeskrahelingen, a kind of pastry eaten with cheese ; also to empty several bottles of old wine.

” A slight incident that occurred shortly before our departure touched me greatly. ‘You think, sir,’ said Mr. Bos, `that because I do not understand French, I have not read the books you have written on our National Arts. Pray undeceive yourself, for here is a translation of it.’ The old gentleman then placed before me a complete manuscript translation of the work, which he had had made specially for himself.”

The special lion of Franeker, which I visited on my way back from Harlingen, is the Planetarium of Eisa Eisinga, a mathematician and wool-comber, who constructed it alone in his back parlour between 1774 and 1781. Interest in planetaria is, I should say, an acquired taste ; but there can be no doubt as to the industry and ingenuity of this inventor. The wonders of the celestial law are unfolded by a very tired young woman, whose attitude to the solar system is probably similar to that of Miss Jellyby to Africa. After her lecture one stumbles upstairs to see the clock-work which controls the spheres, and is then free once more.

Franeker is proud also of her tombstones in the great church, but it is, I fancy, Eisa Eisinga whom she most admires. She was once the seat of an honourable University, which Napoleon suppressed in 1811. Her learning gone, she remains a very pleasant and clean little town. By some happy arrangement all the painting seems to be done at once—so different from London, where a fresh façade only serves to emphasise a dingy one. But although the quality of the paint can be commended, the painters of Franeker are undoubtedly allowed too much liberty. They should not have been permitted to spread their colour on the statues of the stadhuis.

The principal street has an avenue of elm trees down its midst, in the place where a canal would be expected ; but canals traverse the town too. Upon the deck of a peat barge I watched a small grave child taking steady and unsmiling exercise on a rocking horse.

I did not go to Dokkum, which lies at the extrem e north of Friesland. Mr. Doughty, the author of an in teresting book of Dutch travel, called Friesland Meres—he was the first that ever burst into these silent canals in a Norfolk wherry—gives Dokkum a very bad character, and so do other travellers. It seems indeed always to have been an unruly and inhospitable town. As long ago as 853 it was resisting the entry of strangers. The strangers were Saint Boniface and his companion, whom Dokkum straightway massacred. King Pepin was furious and sent an army on a punitive mission ; while Heaven supplemented Pepin’s efforts by permanently stigmatising the people of the town, all the men thenceforward being marked by a white tuft of hair and all the women by a bald patch.

At Leeuwarden is a patriotic society known as the ” Vereenigung tot bevordering van vreemdelingenverkeer,” whose ambition, as their title suggests, is to draw strangers to the town ; and as part of their campaign they have issued a little guide to Leeuwarden and its environs, in English. It is an excellent book. The preface begins thus:__

The travelling-season, which causes thousands of people to leave their homes and hearths, has come round again. Throughout Europe silk strings are being prepared to catch human birds of passage with. Is Frisia—Old Fri sia—to lag behind ? Impossible ! Natural condition as well as population and history give to our province a right to claim a little attention and to be a hostess. We beg to refer to the words of a Frenchman, M. Malte-Brun (quoted by one of the best Frisian authors), the English translation of which words runs as follows: ” Eighteen centuries saw the river Rhine change its course, and the Ocean swallow its shores, but the Frisian nation has remained unchanged, and from an historical point of view deserves being taken an interest in by the descendants of the Franks as well as of the Anglo-Saxons and the Scandinavians:”

It is not often to a Frenchman that the author of this guide has to go for his purple patches. He is capable of producing them himself, and there seems also always to be a Frisian poet who has said the right thing. Thus (of Leeuwarden) : “It is surrounded by splendid fertile meadows, to all of which, though especially to those lying near the roads to Marssum and Stiens, may be applied the words of the Frisian poet Dr. E. Halbertsma :___

(Behold the soil you are walking on, The soil, snatched from the waves; Where are more luxurious meadows, Where do you find such cattle?’)

The farmer, living in the midst of this fine natural scenery, is to be envied indeed : if the struggle for life does not weigh too heavily upon him, his must be a life happier than that of thousands of other people. Living and working with his own family and servants attached to him, he made the right choice when he chose to breed his cattle and improve his grounds to the best of his power. The parlour-windows look out on the fields : the gay sight they grant has its effect on the mood of those inside. The peasant sees and feels the beauty of life, and it makes him thankful, and gives him courage to struggle and to work on, where necessity requires it.”

I gather from the account of Leeuwarden that the justices of that city once knew a crime when they saw one —none more quickly. In 1536, for example, they punished

Jan Koekebakken in a twinkling for the dastardly offence of marrying a married woman. This was his sentence We command that the said Jan Koekebakken, prisoner, be conducted

by the executioner from the Chancery to Brol-bridge, and that he be put into the pillory there. He shall remain standing there for two hours with a spindle under each arm, and with the letter in which he pledged faith to the said Aucke Sijbrant hanging from his neck. He shall remain for ever within the town of Leeuwarden, under penalty of death if he should leave it.

Done and pronounced at Leeuwarden April 29th, 1536.

But the best part of the guide-book is its rapid notes on the villages around Leeuwarden, to so many of which are curious legends attached. At Marssum, close at hand, was born the English painter of Roman life, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Here also was born the ingenious Eisa Eisinga, who constructed the Franeker planetarium in the intervals of wool-combing. At Menaldum lived Mrs. Van Camstra van Haarsma, a husband-tamer and eccentric, of whom a poet wrote :

She breaks pipe and glass and mug, When he speaks as suits a man ; And instead of being cross, He is gentler than a lamb. When in fury glow her eyes, He keeps silent . . . isn’t he wise ?

When not hen-pecking her husband this powerful lady was rearing wild animals or corresponding with the Princess Caroline.

At Boxum, was fought, on 17th January, 1586, hard by the church, the battle of Boxum, between the Spaniards and the Frisians. The Frisians were defeated, and many of them massacred in the church; but their effort was very brave, and “He also has been to Boxum ” is to this day-a phrase applied to lads of courage. Another saying, given to loud speakers, is ” He has the voice of the Vicar of Boxum,” whose tones in the pulpit were so dulcet as to frighten the birds from the roof, and, I hope, sinners to repentance.

At Jelsum is buried Balthazar Becker, the antagonist of superstition and author of The Enchanted World. Near by was Martena Castle, where Alderman Sjuck van Bur-mania once kept a crowd of assailants at bay by standing over a barrel of gunpowder with a lighted brand while he offered them the choice of the explosion or a feast. Hence the excellent proverb, ” You must either fight or drink, said Sjuck “.

At Berlikum was the castle of Bauck Poppema, a Frisian lady cast in an iron mould, who during her husband’s absence in 1496 defended the stronghold against assailants from Groningen. Less successful than Sjuck, after repelling them thrice she was overpowered and thrown into prison. While there she produced twins, thus proving her-self a woman no less than a warrior. ” When the people of Holland glorify Kenau,” says the proverb, ” the Frisians praise their Bauck.” Kenau we have met : the heroic widow of Haarlem who during the siege led a band of three hundred women and repelled the enemy on the walls again and again.

Near Roodkerk is a lake called the Boompoel, into which a coach and four, containing six inside passengers, all of them professional exorcists, disappeared and was never seen again. The exorcists had come to relieve the village of the ghost of a miser, and we must presume had failed to quiet him. Near Bergum, at Buitenrust farm, is the scene of another tragedy by drowning, for there died Juffer Lysse. This maiden, disregarding too long her father’s dying injunction to build a chapel, was naturally overturned in her carriage and drowned. Ever since has the wood been haunted, while the bind-weed, a haunting flower, is in these parts known as the Juffer Lysse blom.

From these scraps of old lore—all taken from the little Leeuwarden guide—it will be seen that Friesland is rich .in romantic traditions and well worthy the attention of any maker of sagas.