Den Helder: the Netherlands’ “city of the sun”

On the tippy top of the Province of North Holland is one of the sunniest cities in the Netherlands, the historic maritime port of Den Helder.

It has its own unique history compared to other cities and towns in the rest of the country. Since the early 18th century, it has been the main naval base of The Royal Netherlands Navy.

Den Helder is the jumping-off point by ferryboat to the island of Texel, one of the Dutch Wadden Islands off the north coast of the Netherlands.

Today, this historic port has been transformed into a trendy place to visit, where you can dine at the diverse and hospitable restaurants, dive into the Navy’s unique Marinemuseum and watch naval vessels motor in and out of the North Sea.

Lange-Jaap-lighthouse-and-Huisduinen
A view of Lange Jaap Lighthouse next to the quaint village of Huisduinen. Image: Jim Goyjer/Supplied

From Den Helder station, it’s a short bus ride and a slightly longer bike ride, along the Zeepromenade bike lane, to the village of Huisduinen, Fort Kijkduin, Lange Jaap Lighthouse and the original site of Den Helder.

The uninterested romans

A thousand years ago, the northeastern portion of the Netherlands was mostly low-level land and shoals protected by dunes, swamps, forests and peat bogs against the stormy sea. Storm surges kept moving the islands around like checkers on a checkerboard.

In the 8th century, people started inhabiting some of the islands. Around 745, the first farms appeared, and by 860, the village of Huisduinen sprung up on one of the islands.

During Roman Times, this land was three meters (nine feet) higher than the sea level. The climate and surroundings were very inhospitable.

Even though you lived on a mound, it was not a great place to build thatched huts, farm, and raise a family. You knew it was a bad place to live when the Romans were not interested in conquering it.

Weathering stormy weather

Storm surges were frequent. Eventually, the residents had to start building earthen walls to protect the area. Around 1500, the first houses were built down the road from Huisduinen in a hamlet called “Die Helder Buyrt” (That Bright Neighborhood).

On November 1, 1570, Catholic’s All Saints Day, all the saints came marching in with a huge storm that killed over 20,000 people from Southern Holland to the coast of Northern Germany.

To be known as the Allerheiligenvloed (All Saints Flood), Huisduinen lost 100 out of 112 homes, and the hamlet Helder disappeared entirely.

After the flood, residents rebuilt the villages. As a result of the saintly storm and the creation of more dikes, the villages became landlocked in 1610.

Newer and stronger dikes were also constructed, using the latest engineering technology, wooden pilings, straw and clay.

The butt of wars galore

The top of North Holland became a strategic military location due to the important commercial shipping lane, Marsdiep. The town connected the North Sea to the South Sea (now Ijsselmeer and Markenmeer) and the port of Amsterdam.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the village residents made a good living from whaling, merchant shipping, and piloting ships through Marsdiep.

During the newly formed Dutch Republic and the so-called Golden Age around 1600, Huisduinen and Helder were main targets for sea battles and land invasions from the French, English, Russian and Spanish.

Of course, fortifications needed to be built to ward off these various intruders. The strongest defender was Fort Kijkduin.

Fort Kijkduin was built at the direction of Napoleon Bonaparte during the French occupation of the Netherlands. He visited Huisduinen in 1811, looked around and said “I would like to have a fort here.”

And so it was done. He also had Fort Erfprins built down the road. His vision was to make the tip of North Holland the “Gibraltar of the North.”

Den Helder’s evolution

Towards the 19th century, fast-growing Den Helder surpassed Huisduinen as an economic centre with its seaport and naval installations.

During the 1820s, the North Holland Canal was dug from Amsterdam to Den Helder. Lange Jaap, the tallest cast-iron lighthouse in Europe, was built in 1877 at 63.45 metres (208.2 ft).

Lange-jaap-lighthouse-in-den-helder
At 63 metres, the lighthouse towers over the whole area. Image: Jim Goyjer/Supplied

During WWII, Den Helder was a Ghost City. Hitler considered Den Helder a bulwark against allied forces, and only workers were allowed into the city during the day.

All citizens had to leave at 6 PM, leaving the city empty of civilians and their homes dilapidated. After the liberation, the town came alive again as people flocked back.

From warfare into tourist fare

Historic Willemsoord is the former Naval base of the Royal Netherlands Navy. Its dock is one of the oldest brick docks in Europe. The old base is now part of Den Helder’s city centre, and it was transformed into an entertainment and tourist district.

The centuries-old Willemsoord includes the Dutch Navy Museum. Apart from the Museum’s indoor collection are several iconic naval vessels, the ram ship Schorpioen (1868), the submarine Tonijn (1965), and gunboat Bonaire (1877).

Gunboat-bonaire-docked-in-den-helder-the-netherlands
Even if it’s no longer in use, it looks impressive in the dock! Image: Jim Goyjer/Supplied

The National Sea Rescue Museum Dorus Rijkers at Willemsoord has, among its five historic lifeboats. The famous Insulinde (1927), the first steel self-righting motorized lifeboat, flips over if capsized.

If you had never thought of visiting Den Helder and its surroundings while on your way to more touristy Texel, think again. A day trip to Den Helder is worth your time, and you would be pleasantly surprised.

Did you know about Den Helder’s fascinating history? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Feature Image:Jim Goyjer/Supplied
Jim Goyjer
Jim Goyjer
Jim Goyjer is a public relations consultant. Born in Amsterdam, he’s lived in California for most of his life. Currently living in the Netherlands with his wife, he looks forward to writing, photography, traveling throughout Europe and exploring more of the Netherlands and his Dutch family heritage going back to the 16th century in Noord Holland and in Amsterdam. He’s always been fascinated with how such a small country as the Netherlands has had such a large impact on the rest of the world.

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