One of the most iconic attractions in the Netherlands is a windmill in a polder. The Dutch have an age-old relationship battling the country's waters, and many windmills are still here today as proof of that history. Quite a few of them are even still in use.
What do windmills do?
Windmills transfer wind energy to rotation energy by catching the movement through wings that are sent spinning. This movement is then used for all kinds of work, from pumping water and grinding corn, to creating electricity.
Different kinds of windmills
Windmills were used to fulfill all kinds of functions, meaning that there were various types of windmill. The main kinds of traditional windmill are: Polder mill, Sawmill, Corn mill and Chalk mill. Windmills also come in various models, consisting of various possible shapes and constructions. Differences can be found in the mills’ mechanics, and how the rump and top are connected.
Rather than the building-like structure with wings of a standard windmill, a modern wind turbine usually simply consists of three large rotor blades, placed on one large pole. Wind turbines make a considerable contribution to green, sustainable energy in the Netherlands. The grand structures are often called windmills by the Dutch, because of their wind powered milling rotation, but they are quite different from their more traditional counterparts.
Spinning and position of the wings
Traditional Dutch windmills spin counter-clockwise. There are various theories about why this is, ranging from the way they catch the wind to the way the millers work the mills. The position of a windmill’s wings when standing still can indicate certain occasions.
Although the code differs per region, the most standard positions are:
- Bottom wing resting at the left side of the rump: a joyful occasion like a wedding or a birth.
- Bottom wing resting at the right side of the rump: an occasion of mourning.
- Wings positioned like an "x": the windmill has been stationary for a longer amount of time, and is temporarily out of use.
In World War II, the positions of the wings were used as secret messages for the local citizens.
Areas in the Netherlands that are known for their windmills
These areas in the Netherlands are famous for their windmills:
The Kinderdijk, in the Dordrecht area, has 19 mills that were built around 1740. The entire Kinderdijk was a complex water management system used to prevent flooding. It also contains dykes, reservoirs and pumping stations. Most of the windmills were used for pumping water. They have been out of use for over 60 years, but they still function as backups to the more modern systems.
The Kinderdijk is one of the nine World Heritage monuments in the Netherlands.
In the 17th century, over 600 mills were placed in the Zaanse schans. They were for industrial use, such as grinding spices, producing paint and sawing planks. Some of these mills are still up today, and can be visited. The mechanisms can be viewed from the inside, to gain an understanding of their workings.
A popular windmill in the Zaanse schans is De Huisman. Shaped like an octagon at the base, this still functioning tourist attraction is rather small, but has had many functions, such as grinding mustard, sawing and processing tobacco.
Schiedam has the largest windmills in the world, reaching around 40 metres in height. They were mainly used in the production of jenever, the well-known Dutch predecessor to gin.
There used to be 20 windmills in Schiedam, but only five remain today. The tallest one is De Noord, measuring 44,8 meters up to the tip of the highest wing.
Although Leiden is relatively small, it has no fewer than nine functioning mills within its borders. Though each is different, the Leiden mills are all quite special in type and shape, compared to other Dutch windmills. They have rather rare constructions, and some of the oldest mill types in the country.
One of the most famous Leiden windmills is De Valk, a city mill that’s located at a five-minute walk from the central station. It has seven floors that are accessible to visitors, and it has a museum and a shop.
The Alblasserwaard still has 53 functioning mills where there used to be a total of 275. Serving all kinds of different functions, this interesting collection is a popular sight.
Mills in and around Amsterdam
Amsterdam has eight windmills of its own:
De Gooyer is one of Amsterdam’s most famous windmills. A corn mill, De Gooyer is located in the city center and spins its wings every first Saturday of the month. Right next to it is a small, traditional brewery.
De Dikkert is a corn mill in Amstelveen, but it used to be a saw mill in Zaandam before it was moved and restored multiple times. Today, it still spins and now functions as a restaurant as well.
De Riekermolen is a historic polder mill that was built on the bank of the Amstel River in 1636. It still spins at set hours on the weekends.
Wooden sawmill De Otter is a paltrok mill, which is a kind of construction with a specific mechanism meant especially for sawing.
De Bloem, a corn mill, is a large mill with two attached residences, one of which is still in use.
Two mills, De 1100 Roe and the 1200 Roe, are both polder mills. The 1100 is now a Bed and Breakfast. The names of the mills are derived from how many "roeden" (an old distance measuring system) they are removed from the original city borders.
D’Admiraal is the only working chalk mill remaining in the Netherlands. The chalk was ground for the paint industry. On the roof of the mill barn, the effigies of two lions were placed to honour the memory of the first owner’s deceased husband, Roelof de Leeuw (the Lion).
Polder mill Tjasker Gaasperpark is a little construction of no more than a few planks, a rotor and wings. It was built in 1978, for the Floriade, a large flower exhibition. It is still there, although it no longer functions.
Visiting a windmill
There are more than 1.000 windmills in the Netherlands. When they are flying a blue flag, they are generally open to visitors. Those who would like to see the inside of a mill can find several with museums and restaurants located inside.
National Mill Day
Another way to visit the mills is to wait for National Mill Day. This event, which usually takes place in May, lets the general public into hundreds of wind and water mills, often for free. On National Mill Day, more than 950 mills will be spinning simultaneously, creating quite some sights throughout the Netherlands.
For a full overview of mills in the Netherlands, you can take a look at the Dutch windmill and watermill database.