hidden europe 49

A Visit to the Old Country

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: Memorial to Father Hendrik in the Altes Land village of Steinkirchen, Germany. He was the symbolic leader of the first Dutch settlers who moved to the area in the 12th century (photo © hidden europe).


Beside the River Elbe, just downstream from Hamburg, lies the Altes Land. It is one of Europe's most intensive areas of fruit cultivation. Apples, raspberries, cherries and plums aplenty in a region which owes much to early Dutch settlers.

The great cargo ships which set sail from Hamburg pass down the Elbe on their way to the North Sea. They pass the Airbus plant at Finkenwerder on their port side and the sedate suburb of Blankenese to starboard. Villas with fine views of the river tumble down the Blankenese hillsides. The gardens of these expensive homes extend over sunny south-facing slopes, so Hamburg’s elite can watch the comings and goings on one of Europe’s great rivers.

But no-one has a better view of the Elbe and its surroundings than the men and women who stand on the bridges of the container ships on the river. For they are usually sufficiently high that they can peek over the dykes which protect the land away to the south of the river and gaze into the old country.

The old country (‘Altes Land’ in German) is not old. Dutch settlers arrived on the banks of the Elbe in the 12th century and diligently set about reclaiming marshy, flood-prone meadows on the south side of the river. First they built drainage canals and dykes in the area between the River Schwinge and the River Lühe; both streams are south-bank tributaries of the Elbe. The land reclaimed in this phase of settlement is called the Erste Meile (the first mile, recalling the Dutch mijl as a unit of measurement).

So successful was the venture that half a century later the reclamation work was extended upstream and a large area beyond the River Lühe — reaching as far as the River Este — was recovered for agricultural use. This was the Zweite Meile (the second mile). Only 200 years later was the third and last phase of reclamation undertaken. It extends further upstream and nudges the very outskirts of Hamburg.

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