The towns and villages that string along the east coast of Noord-Holland flourished during Amsterdam’s Golden Age, their economies buoyed up by shipbuilding, the Baltic Sea trade and the demand for herring. They had access to the open sea via the waters of the Zuider Zee (Southern Sea) and, to the north, the connecting Waddenzee (Mud Sea). The business was immensely profitable and its proceeds built a string of prosperous seaports – most notably Volendam, Hoorn and Enkhuizen – and nourished market towns like Edam, while the Zuider Zee itself supported a batch of fishing villages such as Marken and Urk. In the eighteenth century, however, the Baltic trade declined and the harbours silted up, leaving the ports economically stranded.

The Zuider Zee continued to provide a livelihood for local fishermen, but most of the country was more concerned by the danger of flooding it posed, as time and again storms and high tides combined to breach the east coast’s defences. The first plan to seal off and reclaim the Zuider Zee was proposed in 1667, but the rotating-turret windmills that then provided the most efficient way of drying the land were insufficient for the task and matters were delayed until suitable technology arrived – in the form of the steam-driven pump. In 1891, Cornelis Lely (1854–1929) proposed a retaining dyke and his plans were finally put into effect after devastating floods hit the area in 1916. Work began on this dyke, the Afsluitdijk, in 1920 and, on May 28, 1932, the last gap in it was closed and the Zuider Zee simply ceased to exist, replaced by the freshwater IJsselmeer.

The original plan was to reclaim all the land protected by the Afsluitdijk, turning it into farmland for settlers from the country’s overcrowded cities, starting with three large-scale land-reclamation schemes that were completed over the next forty years: the Noordoostpolder in 1942 (480 square kilometres), Oostelijk Flevoland in 1957 (540 square kilometres) and Zuidelijk Flevoland in 1968 (440 square kilometres). In addition, a second, complementary dyke linking Enkhuizen with Lelystad was finished in 1976, thereby creating lake Markermeer – a necessary prelude to the draining of another stretch of the IJsselmeer. The engineers licked their contractual lips, but they were out of sync with the majority of the population, who were now opposed to any further draining of the lake. Partly as a result, the grand plan was abandoned and, after much governmental huffing and puffing, the Markermeer was left alone and thus most of the old Zuider Zee remained water.

There were many economic benefits to be had in the closing of the Zuider Zee, not least great chunks of new and fertile farmland, while the roads that were built along the top of the two main retaining dykes brought Noord-Holland within twenty minutes’ drive of Friesland. The price was the demise of the old Zuider Zee fishing fleet, and today these placid, steel-grey lakes are popular with day-tripping Amsterdammers, who come here in their droves to sail boats, observe the waterfowl, and visit a string of dinky towns and villages that pretty much rely on tourism to survive. These begin on the coast just a few kilometres north of Amsterdam with the picturesque old fishing village of Marken and the former seaport of Volendam, just up the coast. From here, it’s a couple of kilometres further to Edam, the pick of the local bunch, a small and infinitely pretty little town of narrow canals and handsome old houses.

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