At the start of this year I set the goal to visit all the Dutch UNESCO sites. The year is half-way done and I have to say I’m making excellent progress. The Woudagemaal in Friesland is one of two sights I visited during a day trip to the north of the Netherlands.
I’m happy that the Woudagemaal is on the UNESCO Heritage list, otherwise I’m not sure many visitors would visit this tucked away little gem. It’s hard to find in any of the guidebooks. The location of the pumping station is Lemmer, Friesland, which is a bit out of the way considering most tourists centre themselves in and around Amsterdam.
The best way to reach this sight is by car (1h15m), to reach the town by public transportation from Amsterdam takes around two hours. This was my first short visit to Friesland and I feel I only scratched the surface of what this province has to offer.
The building itself is surrounded by water, on one side there’s a canal (Stroomkanaal) on the other a lake (IJselmeer).
The location of the sight is relevant, because the Woudagemaal is built to pump excess water out of the province Friesland. It was built and opened in 1920 by Queen Wilhelmina. What makes it special is that it’s the largest still operational steam-powered pumping station in the world.
The pumping station is currently used to supplement the existing pumping capacity of the J.L. Hooglandgemaal (an electric pumping station) in case of exceptionally high water levels in Friesland; this usually happens a few days per year. It takes ages to power the station up, but when it’s activated it runs like a charm.
Most of the time the station is on stand-by, waiting for excessive rain.
There is a fully trained staff – the old machines require some special skills – who activate and de-activate the pump every now and then to ensure everything’s working and apart from that tours are organized within the building.
It’s open for visits from February to December. There’s a hyper-modern visitor centre next to the old building which contains some interesting information, and a video that shows what it looks like when the pumps are activated. The only way to visit the adjacent building is by taking a tour. Multiple tours are organized each day.
The archtitecture of the building is based on what is known as the Amsterdam School. Buildings of the Amsterdam School are characterized by brick constructions with complicated masonry and the integration of an elaborate scheme of building elements such as decorative masonry, art glass and ladder windows.
The tour guide explained that the UNESCO Heritage inscription does pose some problems for this still functioning station, since some of the machinery are in need of a renewal; with the Heritage status this is not as easy as it sounds. Balancing changes which could pose threats to the historic significance but which are required to continue using the factory is challenging.
The Woudagemaal is not a sight I expect to find on a tourist’s itinerary, but in my opinion it does deserve a spot. There are not many UNESCO listed factories, let alone ones that are still functioning. That alone makes this place significant, not to mention all the old machinery to test your photography skills on.
I would say it’s worth a little trip to the countryside away from the big city. You could even combine it with a visit to Schokland, a Dutch island with a complicated history.