Official Visitor Website

How the Dutch, Low Countries and Continent helped shape Norfolk UK

Norfolk used to be joined to the Continent. Yes, really! It was only the final thawing of the last Ice Age around 5000BC that separated us, but during the past few millennia there has been constant traffic between our shores and those of Europe.

Some have been invaders, pillagers or colonialists, but our ties with the Low Countries have been largely friendly, not least because of important trading links.

Through to the 18th century Norwich was the second city of England. It was a busy cultural capital, heavily settled by those who had come over the North Sea, including the Dutch and Huguenots escaping religious persecution, and even emigres from the French Revolution. Yes, the North Sea has always been a carrier, not a barrier.

Norwich School and Cathedral, Norwich

Dutch Gable architecture at The Norwich School in the precinct of Norwich Cathedral.

They helped create many of Norfolk’s trades, its arts, its printing achievements and its painting traditions. At the hub of Norfolk’s great and farm-filled wheel, Norwich sponsored painting, writing, music and culture in general. Today’s Norfolk and Norwich Festival, the oldest arts festival in the country, is testament to that immigration.

The Norfolk coast is as close to the Netherlands, just 113 miles, as it is to London and in medieval times it only took a day to sail to Amsterdam, but four days to travel to London. At that time Norfolk was isolated by muddy marshland and dense forest so we have always looked to the Continent.

In fact, even now with daily KLM flights from Norwich International Airport to Schiphol it’s still quicker to get to Amsterdam than London! (And the more slow travel approach today is a Stena Line Ferry from the Hook of Holland to Harwich).

Dutch Fair Great Yarmouth George Vincent

The Dutch Herring Fair at Great Yarmouth by George Vincent (1821).

The relationship began with fish but flourished in the thirteenth century when wool was exported through the Broads to the weavers of Flanders. At that time Norfolk was at the forefront of mercantile trade in Britain – the county had one of the highest populations in the country, and Norwich was a wealthy city, second only to London.

Although the Dutch and Walloon ‘Strangers’ invited to Norwich in 1565 by Queen Elizabeth I are the best-known of the Low Countries immigrants, the first Flemings were invited to Norfolk in 1338 to escape their French rulers and the Hundred Years War.

WWT Welney aerial

The Wetland Wildlife Trust at Welney, west Norfolk – the straight lines of the Dutch-engineered dykes are clearly visible.

In the fifteenth century, protectionist tariffs, taxation and wars promoted domestic cloth-making – assisted in the 1560s by refugee Flemish weavers fleeing the Inquisition in the Spanish Netherlands, who brought with them their now-famous Canaries, remembered today in the nickname of Norwich City Football Club.

By the end of the 16th century there were over 4000 Protestant Dutch refugees in Norwich, accounting for almost a third of the population.

The Canaries aren’t the only influences we retain: Dutch architecture, such as gable ends, can be found across Norfolk, particularly in Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn.

Gorleston aerial Mike Page, Norfolk, UK

The harbour’s mouth of the River Yare at Gorleston-on-Sea.

At the same time as the refugees came, Dutch engineer Joas Johnson helped erect stone and timber piers at the river Yare at Great Yarmouth which finally secured the harbour’s mouth. There had been more than a dozen attempts to make a final ‘cut’. His work lasted until 1962 when ‘The Old Dutch Pier’ was replaced by the current concrete structure, which resulted in Gorleston losing part of its beach (don’t worry, it’s back now and bigger than ever).

In the 1650s Dutch engineer Sir Cornelius Vermuyden, an expert in land reclamation, directed major projects to drain the Fens, the first time this has been attempted since Roman occupation. Great sluices were constructed to control the flow of water, connecting villages that were formerly little islands and docks amid the marshes and seawaters of a great archipelago.

Even before Vermuyden’s work, Dutch drainage experts were working in Norfolk – there is a 1525 Dutch inscription for a ‘Peter Peterson, dyke reeve’ at Haddiscoe church in south Norfolk.

Round tower Haddiscoe Church of St Mary's

Haddiscoe church, where you can see an inscription to a Dutch dyke reeve.

Norfolk’s prosperous links with the Continent waned with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, but at least that means we still retain so many of our old buildings – they were never demolished for ‘progress’. And what many people don’t realise is that the Industrial Revolution was a product of the Agricultural Revolution that Norfolk helped create in the work of Thomas Coke, the first Earl of Leicester, at Holkham, who brought land reform, and Charles ‘Turnip’ Townshend, who brought four-crop rotation to Britain. And where did he copy it from? Waasland, in Flanders… continental Europe.

Two-horse ploughing from Holland replaced the heavy English eight-ox plough; turnips and Friesian cows came too – the latter particularly enjoying being fattened on Norfolk’s marshes.

And, of course, if one of the symbols of Holland is its windmills, then the same applies to Norfolk – except most of them aren’t windmills at all, they’re wind pumps to keep fields free from flooding. Inspired by the Dutch!

Thurne Dyke windpump

Thurne Dyke windpump in the Broads National Park.