Eric steers the small aluminium motorboat down the narrow canal. From the two-seater vessel, there are good views over the water meadows, where the very last of the morning mist is now clearing. The canal makes a gentle arc to the left and, at a point where the waterway widens, Eric swings the boat around, so that we are pointing back east towards Alkmaar. Eric brings the boat to rest by a wooden dock. He kills the motor and jumps out, adjusts his cap and looks around at a glorious landscape which is typical of this rural part of Holland.
Eric opens the blue front door of the windmill and reaches for a set of keys, one of which he uses to open a large trap door, revealing a scoop wheel. His next move is to release the brake rope, tied to a small post on one of the mill’s weatherboarded sides. He then unlocks the tool shed from which he grabs a rake and a broom. With the rake he carefully removes the weeds which clog the feed side of the mill; he then uses the broom to clean the walls. He concludes this outdoor routine by greasing and oiling the scoop wheel shaft, then heads inside, where he is greeted with a purr. Bacio is making it clear that it’s time for breakfast.
Minutes later, Eric Zwijnenberg is sitting quietly, looking out of the living room window over the flat terrain which surrounds the mill. The sound of the ticking clock is interrupted only by the clinking of spoon and cup. Eric smiles as he alternates gentle sips of his tea with bites of his favourite raisin cake, occasionally turning around to check up on his cat, also eating peacefully in the kitchen. Both are visibly content in their well established morning routines, at ease in each other’s company. Eric sits at a table in a crammed living room, but the space feels surprisingly uncluttered, with the mishmash of objects melding into a collection that has its own systematic unity.
There are family pictures, a painting of the windmill, miniature vintage cars, certificates, photos of Bacio’s predecessors, check curtains, flowers, a Bakelite radio, a stunning antique sideboard boasting elaborate marquetry, old spoons and ceramic plates. Each item gives a hint of Eric’s tastes; more importantly, this eclectic ensemble paints a precise picture of the man’s life.
“Most of what you see here belonged to my parents,” ventures Eric, breaking the silence to appease my curiosity. This is a space dripping with nostalgia. “Much of what you see here has hardly changed since we came here in 1953.” He points to a yellowing advertisement in a small frame. It reads: “Oude molen ideaal in polderland vlak bij duin en zee gelegen, zeer geschikt voor zomerbewoning.”
Eric’s parents were looking for a small holiday retreat and the tiny advert answered their needs. The old drainage mill of Wimmenum, decommissioned and abandoned two years earlier, and in a fine setting not far from the dunes and the sea, was available to rent.
“My father was sceptical,” says Eric, “but my mother was adamant. Once she saw it, that was it.” Eric remembers those early years fondly. “I was seven at the time. I was born very close to here in Heiloo but we were brought up in Amsterdam. My brother Peter and I would cry at the end of the school summer holidays when we had to return to the city. I still avoid the city if I can!”
Bringing the mill back to life
After two years of renting, the Zwijnenbergs, a family with no milling tradition to speak of, decided to buy the windmill from the local water board, and Eric’s fascination for the building grew as the years went by. In a nation of diggers and drainers, mills are deeply symbolic, and valued as a community asset. It is the mill, after all, which pumps away excess water and keeps everyone dry.
Eric’s windmill was built in 1774 to pump water from the 100-hectare Wimmenumer Polder near Egmond in the province of Noord-Holland. Cast back a couple of centuries and there were 700 mills in this Dutch province alone, each one part of a complex network which prevented flooding. An earlier mill on the same site was destroyed in a storm. For almost 200 years, the current mill at Wimmenum drained the surrounding fields until an electric pump, installed in 1951, made both the mill and the miller redundant. The clapboard-and-thatch smock mill — with its distinctive octagonal shape and rotating cap to bring the sails into the wind — was initially used just as a home by the Zwijnenberg family. But it was clear that the electric pump which drained the polder was struggling and a little help from the windmill might not go amiss. So in 1967, the old mill, now restored, returned to service.
Eric operated the mill on a voluntary basis from that moment onwards, and he quickly developed an enthusiasm for the task. Eric was no ordinary miller. His achievements are evidenced in certificates and citations that form part of the interior clutter in the living room. They attest to a lifetime of dedication.
“I was involved in the creation of Het Gilde van Vrijwillige Molenaars (Guild of Voluntary Millers) in the late sixties,” explains Eric. He went on to chair the association, combining his devotion to mills with work as a physics teacher. “That certificate over there is my title of miller, the first official one issued in the Netherlands by the Dutch Mill Society, De Hollandsche Molen, in 1970,” he humbly explains.
Back in the early seventies Eric also instigated the Nationale Molendag (National Mill Day), a weekend held in mid-May each year where all mills in the Netherlands, over 900 of them, open the doors to the public, rotating their sails in unison to celebrate the very distinctive contributions which mills have made to Dutch culture and land management.
Climbing to the top
Eric reaches for another slice of raisin cake as he reflects on a life which has always had the mill as its pivot.
“I live in Alkmaar, in a house by a canal,” he says, smiling at this Dutch stereotype. “It’s not far from here, just 25 minutes on the boat. I spend two thirds of the year here at the mill, especially in the summer time, also weekends, maybe just a few other days in the winter.”
When in Alkmaar, if heavy rain is expected, Eric heads to the Wimmenumermolen and gets it running. “The modern electric pump which drains this polder can cope with 13 mm of rain in 24 hours, but these days we occasionally get 70 to 80 mm of rain in a day. That’s when my mill really is needed to help prevent flooding.”
It’s clear that Eric is a man who tracks the passage of low pressure cells across the Atlantic and understands the dynamics of weather in Holland. Today, however, there are no clouds on the horizon. High pressure has brought stable weather.
“Hardly any wind is expected today,” explains Eric, “but if it comes, it will be from the north-east, so let’s head up and rotate the cap so that the sails catch whatever breeze there might be.” Eric cannot wait to show the mechanics of his mill, even though it won’t be pumping any water today.
To reach the top of the mill, Eric has to go up three floors, reached through trap doors and wooden stairs. On the way up, he points out two compact bedrooms with pleasant views of the surrounding farmland. It is the top of the mill — the cap — which holds the complex working machinery.
To turn the cap into the wind Eric uses the capstan, a large wheel with spokes serving as handles and a drum into which a chain is wound. Eric releases it and grabs the chain which he then hitches to one of the anchor posts encircling the interior of the cap. He takes off his right clog and proceeds to step on the spokes, forcing them down with his own weight. Moving the cap is physically demanding on Eric, but turn it does, the rollers supporting it along the way. He treads on the capstan wheel steadily, only stopping to shift the chain to the next anchor post, repeating the operation a couple of times, before fixing the capstan wheel to the floor. Eric’s mobile rings as he struggles to catch his breath back.
“That was another miller,” he says. “He called me because he saw a windmill with its sails in mourning position and asked me who had died.” The sails speak a language of their own; the windmills express moods to any who can understand them. “The millers are a close-knit community,” he continues. “We may live solitary lives, but we care for each other, and the sails help in our communication.”
Windmills, it seems, are at work even when they rest.
The mill awakens
The following day is slightly colder, but by the time I arrive, Eric has already been for his morning swim in the canal. The cows are grazing on the dewy grass, and the yellow-orange hues of the sunrise have faded to blue. The weather may look set fair, but Eric knows better.
“We’ll have some wind today,” he promises.
When the wind does arrive two hours later, Eric quickly downs his tea and heads for the brake rope. It hangs from the brake handle at the back of the cap and extends all the way down to the ground ten metres below. The polder does not need draining as it hasn’t rained lately, but Eric is nonetheless keen to demonstrate his mill at work. It comes to life inside as Eric pulls the rope.
The brake lever rises and moves right, causing the brake band to disengage from the rim of the brake wheel, thus allowing the rotary motion of the wind shaft to start. The sails, which are attached to the wind shaft, are spinning anticlockwise, gathering pace with each turn. The creaking increases and the brake wheel cogs spin and drive a smaller gear wheel, the wallower, which is mounted on the upright shaft, so making it rotate. This beam runs vertically down the windmill and is connected to the scoop wheel mechanism below. Thus the motion finally gets transmitted from wind to water.
The noise and movement inside the mill are captivating. There is whirring and vibrating on every floor, and the wood groans and rumbles. The windmill is alive at last.
“It’s important to understand the sounds that the windmill makes when in motion,” Eric explains. “It is a reliable way of checking the machinery and identifying problems.” Today, the windmill does not complain.
Outside, the sails make an intimidating sound every time they swish close to the ground, as if showing off their power. Water is fed from a polder ditch into the intake of the mill, and the scoop wheel is pumping enough water to push the sluice door open. The draining has begun, and the water is discharged into the canal at the tail race end. The scoop wheel is so hard at work that excess water is pumped through the black trap door, creating a small brook which finishes at the canal next to Eric’s boat.
After half an hour of draining, Eric decides to let the mill rest. He pulls the brake rope, the brake lever lowers and the brake ring contracts onto the wheel with a fierce screech. The action comes to an abrupt end, and all inside is now at an eerie standstill, only interrupted by the final grunts emitted by the timber frame of the mill.
It is easy to understand Eric’s enthusiasm for the windmill, with its time-worn technology working as effectively as ever, asserting its power. There is a simple allure to this profession which brings with it a real commitment to environment and community.
The mill is now silent, bar the ticking of the living room clock, the kettle on the boil and the wind whistling outside. The mill is a retreat from the noise pollution of a technological age. And that, perhaps, explains while there will always be men like Eric who are willing to devote their lives to a mill.