Creaking windmills, little wooden houses with green facades, hump-backed bridges, brand-new clogs, row and rows of cheese blocks. And water wherever you look. Zaanse Schans could come straight out of a picture book of Holland in the 17th and 18th century. Time seems to have stopped still here. The rhythm of work is determined by wind power. With its aid the inhabitants can saw wood, crush chalk to coloured powder and press nuts to delicious oil. Nowadays it all looks so contemplative. But not so long ago this was a vast industrial region which only declined in importance with the invention of the steam engine. Windmills in their thousands produced goods in their thousands for the nearby trading metropolis of Amsterdam. The manufacturing area on the banks of the Zaan was so well-known that even the Russian Czar came here in 1697 – incognito – to learn as much as he could about ship-building. Zaanse Schans keeps the memories of the early industrial history of the region alive – not as an open-air museum but as a busy village with museums, shops and workshops whose inhabitants are only too aware of their traditions. If you want to get the best view of this little world why not take a boat trip on the Zaan?
For centuries peat was the sole source of natural riches in Zaanstreek, the watery moorland on the banks of the River Zaan. But right next door Amsterdam was expanding to the status of one of the world’s great cities and demand for goods rose to an immense level. Suddenly Zaanstreek moved into the centre of attention. For this flat landscape had something more precious to offer than peat. Wind! In 1594, just at the right time, a man named Cornelis Corneliszoon von Uitgeest revolutionised the building of windmills by equipping them with a crankshaft. This improved their performance out of all proportion with the result that every windmill became a small factory in itself. More than a thousand windmills sprung up in Zaanstreek during the 17th and 18th centuries. They sawed wood, threshed corn, pressed grain and nuts to oil, milled coloured powder from chalk and ground snuff from tobacco leaves. All sorts of craftsmen moved into the area including tin founders, boat builders, sail makers and last not least a man called Gerrit Kist, who had worked for a time at the court of the Russian Czar in Moscow. He was later to make a name for himself as the man who accommodated the Czar in his cottage in Zaanstreek for a week. The Czar had come there as an for the purposes of industrial espionage, for in those days the area had a reputation of being a centre of innovation. Now it is one of the oldest manufacturing areas in Europe. Of the countless windmills which once dotted the landscape only 12 have survived, five of which are standing in Zaanse Schans. All of them have now been restored to working order and continue to saw and grind just as they did centuries ago. The majority of the wooden houses in the village come from the immediate vicinity. They were moved here because they were threatened with demolition on their original sites. Now they help visitors to get a clearer idea of building styles in the Netherlands during the age of early industrialisation. Zaanse Schans has been preserved as if in a time capsule. The present-day inhabitants are helping to safeguard a fascinating inheritance.