It’s strange how a few shots from an old movie can stick in the mind. Just over 40 years ago, an all star cast gave us “Battle of Britain”, a film depicting the fight in 1940 between the Royal Air Force and the Luftwaffe for control of the skies above the English Channel. It was the failure of the Luftwaffe to win that fight that led to the cancellation of German plans for the invasion of England.
The part of Hermann Goring, the Luftwaffe commander in chief, was played in the movie by a little known German actor called Hein Reiss. I can see him now. Fat and splendidly uniformed, he stood on the French coast gloating, as hundreds of German aircraft above him headed across the Channel for England. The movie shows Goring/Reiss gazing greedily from France across over 20 miles of sea at the white cliffs of Dover and it is here that the film loses me. I can never see land on the other side of the Channel with the naked eye. All that I can ever see, even on a clear day, is horizon. Perhaps my old eyes are to blame and admittedly Goring/Reiss was assisted by the use of an expensive looking pair of binoculars. Yet Pat and I last week once again crossed the straits of Dover in both directions on a car ferry and once again felt ourselves to be completely at sea.
A few days later, we had a similar experience and, on this occasion, we made our sea journey without even the help of a ship! Our main travel adventure of October 2010 was our first ever visit to Holland. Look at the map of Holland and it will be seen that the sea takes a huge bite out of that country’s north western corner. The great bay that is thereby formed is called the Zuyder Zee. On opposite shores of the Zuyder Zee, two little Dutch towns face each other. One is called Enkhuizen. The other is called Lelystad. The two towns are linked by a road across the sea, which is built on a kind of causeway. Coincidentally, the distance involved is exactly the same as the distance across the English Channel at Dover. We were therefore able to drive by car across the Zuyder Zee from Enkhuizen to Lelystad. It reminded me of the drive from Miami to Key West along that road linking the Florida Keys. One feels completely at sea. Certainly I could not make out Lelystad in the distance, as we drove off from Enkhuizen into the sea. Horizon was all that was visible. Perhaps I would have been helped by using the binoculars of Goring/Riess.
The story of the Zuyder Zee – in Dutch meaning “southern sea” – is a frightening one. It was once land, apart from a relatively small lake, known to the Romans as “Lacus Flevo”. A thousand years ago, the coast of Holland made its journey from Rotterdam in the south around to Hamburg and Denmark in the north, broken only by a few rivers flowing into the sea. Then the sea invaded Holland, with enormous loss of life during the early Middle Ages. Rising sea levels ate away at the coastline and the Zuyder Zee was born. In 1287, 80,000 people were drowned in what was the world’s fifth largest flood ever. Seawalls were built to resist the sea’s invasion, but these did not always hold. For example, in 1421, the collapse of a seawall led to the flooding of dozens of villages and the deaths of 10,000 people. Yet, from these tragedies, emerged one of the great cities of the world.
Prior to the sea’s incursion, there existed a little village far from sea. It was located on the River Amstel close to where a dam had been built. The name of the village therefore was Amsterdam. As the sea invaded to create the Zuyder Zee, the little village gradually became a coastal port with easy access to the prosperous Baltic Sea. It used this turn of events to become one of the greatest ports in the world. Today, the surrounding metropolitan area has a population of over eight million inhabitants. The city became a leader in the fields of diamonds and finance. Holland established its colonial empire and, as the financial and cultural capital of the country, Amsterdam profited from this. The Amsterdam Stock exchange is the oldest stock exchange in the world. Great wealth still exists here. It is possible to travel all over Amsterdam by canal boat. When doing so, one cannot fail to notice district after district of tall, narrow, elegant mansions built over recent centuries by wealthy merchants.
Finally, in the 20th century, moves began to reclaim the Zuyder Zee from the sea in order to give the Dutch a little more living space. The dams recently built in pursuit of that project, such as the causeway between Enkhuizen and Lelystad traveled by Pat and me, prevent the continued use the Zuyder Zee as a means of access for ships to the port of Amsterdam. However that is no problem, because the port of Amsterdam is now linked to the ocean by a great canal running west from the city. Its operation, as a leading shipping center, is therefore not hampered by the reclamation works in the Zuyder Zee.
The status of Amsterdam as one of the world’s great cities is shown by the fact that the 1928 Olympic Games were held here. And where did they then hold the sailing events? The Zuyder Zee, of course.