We went to Holland and entered a world so different from our own. Yes, it’s flat. But that’s not the only striking thing about it.
We had a choice of passing by Antwerp – a whole world of pain a year earlier (but surely they’d have finished the road building by now) – or going ‘the pretty route’. This involved driving across great expanses of water in south-western Holland to our destination.
We chose the pretty route and headed north. Okay, so it was still flat with wind-whipped farms but looking over to the left – what’s that? And that over there? And that? Huge industrial buildings next to long chains of silos, hundreds of feet high; stacks of metal chimneys rising out of concrete blocks; angled office blocks jutting out of the ground; steaming stacks and smoking chimneys (to make biofuel – surely it shouldn’t be that polluting to make); and pylons, pylons everywhere, holding steel-cabled hands across the landscape in a permanently frozen auld lang syne.
The first stretch of water approached. I prepared myself, Saga Noren-like, to cross a bridge where you couldn’t see one end from the other. I channelled my inner difficult self.
We went into a tunnel.
A spotlessly clean, not a leaf to be seen, swept with a toothbrush, tunnel. Then we emerged and looked at the sides of the four-lane dual carriageway. Spotless again. the farmyards, the industrial plants – all swept and organised. No broken pallets lying around, no tyres, no scrap metal. Anything that was ‘spare’ was organised spare.
The next day we drove to Kinderdijk – through more of the same – and found 19 perfectly preserved windmills between 300-400 years old, with a backdrop of pylons and a side of heavy industry. There was even a block of offices for a shipping company built in the shape of a ship.
After the windmills we had a cup of coffee in the cafe and watched the world go by; including a Dutch woman who saw a piece of litter on the side of the bank – and picked it up. She then looked around for any more and finding two other pieces picked them both up too.
Ah, we thought. That’s why it’s so clean; it’s ingrained. A nation who care passionately about their country so much as to pick up an dispose of other people’s litter as a matter of course. That’s why the hedges are clipped perfectly on all the houses and the hedgerows picked clean.
National pride. And, even though that area was a bit bleak in places, it still had soul, and souls who care for it.