Yes, Zeeland has dunes, but if you take a good look at the coast, you know that there would be no Zeeland without dikes. To be able to live safely in this area and keep their feet dry, people had to meddle with the landscape. Traces of an imposing Roman dike (5.5 metres wide, 80 cm in height and at least 70 metres in length) have been found near Serooskerke on Walcheren, which was built just before the year 200 A.D. And when this dike was washed away, they constructed a new one that was slightly wider.
The first dikes were mainly constructed for defensive purposes: as protection against water. It was only later in history that people went on ‘the offensive’, reclaiming large areas of land from the water. Old dikes had to protect people, livestock and land from flooding. For example, large-scale dike circles were built around the old core areas (the ‘oudland’) of Schouwen, Walcheren and western Zuid-Beveland. These were not overly impressive dikes, as you can still see at the Valdijk and the Koedijk south of Nisse. These dikes were part of the ring dike around the old lands of Zuid-Beveland.
The dikes were usually made of materials available locally: clay. But pile structures, natural stone hollows and eventually concrete hollows and asphalt were also used. You can view the wide range of materials used in a museum model slope at the Watersnoodmuseum in Ouwerkerk. A fairly recent ‘trend’ are the concrete Muralt walls (wall structures on top of existing dikes). Since the early twentieth century, these have been used to raise dikes without having to widen them. Unfortunately, it turned out that they provided very little protection. Most of the Muralt walls disappeared when the dikes were raised to the level of the Delta, but you can still see them at various places along the Veerse Meer Lake, and there is also a beautiful Muralt wall on the Grevelingen Lake near Scharendijke.
Dike workers and ‘polderjongens’ (polderboys) were employed for the maintenance and construction of the dikes. A group of hard-working men with a less than stellar reputation. A monument dedicated to them stands on the Veerse Gatdam. It looks rugged and tough: much like the men themselves.
Reading the landscape thanks to inner dikes
Polders were expanded step by step. You can still clearly see the original land and sea side of old sea dikes that have now become inland dikes. On the water side, the landscape used to be sloping, on the land side it was steeper. If you look at the old dikes, you can actually still read the landscape. You can also see from the dikes where the battle with the water was particularly hard. In Zak van Zuid-Beveland, for instance, there are many conspicuously meandering dikes. These whimsical shapes were created by breaches. You also often see pools of water (‘welen’ in Dutch) next to the dikes – these are the remains of deep pools that were created following a dike breach. The resulting landscape looks charming, but at the same time, serves as a reminder of a gruelling struggle.
When a dike was so far inland that it was no longer needed to protect against rising water, it was given another function. Building on water-retaining dikes was not allowed: however, this was allowed on inner dikes. Rows of trees were often planted on the dikes and roads were also built. Especially in Zak van Zuid-Beveland, you can see that the pattern of the roads still often follows the dikes. This is how dike hamlets or even entire dike villages came into being. Westdorpe is an exceptional example of this. Measuring 4.5 kilometres in length, it is the second longest village in the Netherlands. Inland dikes not only offer opportunities for humans. The flora of Zeeland also benefits from them. The dikes in Zak van Zuid-Beveland offer such a degree of protection that flowers are able to grow there which are normally only found in much more southerly countries. And Schouwen-Duiveland, too, has its own unique dike vegetation. Although that is also due to the fact that they were in part built with soil from Germany.
Reinforced inlay dikes
When a dike was in danger of collapsing, a reinforced inlay dike was built: a kind of reserve dike. This practice was particularly common on Schouwen-Duiveland and Noord-Beveland. If the sea dike were to break there, people would still be safe. The Keihoogte Inlaag and the ‘s Gravenhoek Inlaag in Noord-Beveland are examples of these old ‘inlagen’, wet areas between dikes and reserve dikes. Nowadays, they serve as nature reserves. You can follow a beautiful cycle route alongside them, some of which runs outside the dikes, and spot birds.
The Westkappelse dike
If you want to be able to experience firsthand just how important dikes are anywhere in Zeeland, then Westkapelle is the ideal place. Especially during a heavy storm, the waves pound against the dike and you can very clearly see the difference between a dry and a flooded Walcheren. The people of Westkapelle also tend to identify the village with the dike. It defines their identity. The dike was built in the fifteenth century when the dunes provided less and less protection.
Because the dike has as a first line of defence as its main function, it takes quite a beating. Consequently, regular maintenance has always been necessary. The dike maintenance was done by dike workers. The Westkapel dike workers formed a closed community with its own rules. They worked in ‘benden’ – gangs. Just south of Westkapelle, the dike is intersected by dunes backed by a creek. The dike was bombed to smithereens by the Allies during the Second World War. The village was flooded and many Westkapelle residents lost their lives. You can find out more about the bombing and the entire history of the dike in the Dijk- en Oorlogsmuseum het Polderhuis. The museum also organises regular demonstrations of a pile-driving team that demonstrates how people used to work on the dike. A lot of singing also takes place during these demonstrations. This video from the Zeeland canon also gives you an impression of the Westkapelse sea dike
As part of the Delta Plan, many new hydraulic engineering works have been built. A lesser known fact is that a great deal of work was also carried out on the existing dikes. These had to be raised to the height of the Delta in order to be able to offer adequate protection. You can see this clearly at De Griete on the south side of the Westerschelde. The dike is much higher and wider here and towers above the houses. In 2023, work also began on reinforcing the dike at Hansweert. This 5.2-kilometer-long dike no longer met the safety standards established in the Water Act of 2017. To ensure safety in the future, the dyke is being strengthened.
With the rising sea levels, Zeeland’s coastal defences remain a topical issue. And although the Oosterscheldekering may very well be the flagship of the Deltawerken, the dikes are also, just as they were centuries ago, still of vital importance today.