Something that transcends the norm has an innate interest to many people. The popularity of the Guinness Book of World Records is testament to that. So for something to be the tallest, the biggest, the oldest, the greatest or the smallest is good for business. And thus, several places lay claim to being ‘the smallest village of the Netherlands’.
Now such a claim may be of direct interest to the local shopkeepers and the chamber of commerce – if a place that small even has a chamber. But there is, of course, some ambiguity in such an assertion. To begin with, how do we measure the size of a village? Is it a matter of area? Of population? Of number of dwellings? When it comes to area, one would say the answer could be unequivocal. One can measure area. But in practice, it is not so straightforward. Most villages are part of larger municipalities, which can be measured because they are formally designated subdivisions of the country. The smallest municipality currently (borders are redrawn all the time) is Westervoort, in the province of Gelderland, with 1756 acres. But in the case of a village, which is not a formal entity, is farmer Jansen’s field part of ‘village A’ or neighboring ‘village B’?
When it comes to population, the designation becomes relatively easy. There are several (at least two) villages in the country that have a population of zero inhabitants. Indeed, zero.
Koudekerke in the province of Zeeland is a village, but it only consists of an observation tower. The rest of the village was lost to one of the many floods that used to afflict the province. A second village with a similar story, and a population of zero as well, is Poppekerke, also in Zeeland.
But really, can you call a village without people truly a village? Isn’t that just a ghost town? Indeed, what constitutes a village? If you go by common usage in the 19th century, a village was only a village if it had a church, otherwise it was a hamlet. By that definition, there are dozens of places, especially in Friesland, that could lay claim to the term smallest village: there are many churches around which there is no longer a population presence. But there are two inhabited villages that actively pursue the moniker of ‘smallest village of The Netherlands’: Persingen in Gelderland and ‘t Woudt in the Delfland area of South Holland.
Local historian of ‘t Woudt, Jacques Moerman, who authored a book on the history of the place is clear: to classify as a village, a locale must have a church, a vicarage and an inn or hostelry. ‘t Woudt has all three and also all of three farms plus a few cottages. So does Persingen, but 105 people live in Persingen and only twenty-six in ‘t Woudt, so we will declare ‘t Woudt the smallest, by the authority vested in us as, well… as the experts on Dutch stuff I suppose.
‘t Woudt has become a magnet for recreational cyclists traversing the open space of Delfland, squeezed in between the busy cities of The Hague, Delft and Rijswijk. All of its buildings have been painstakingly renovated, and one of the farms functions as a coffee house (the requisite hostelry) where tired cyclists can rest and replenish. The steeple of the late medieval church is a beacon in the flatland surrounding the village and has a rich history, which includes passing from Roman Catholic hands to the Protestants after the Reformation.
The name of the village translates to ‘the Wood’ or ‘the Forest’. ‘t Woudt is built on a former sea arm that was filled in through the years with thick, fertile sea clay. The surrounding areas consisted of peaty ground, and therefore the area around ‘t Woudt supported a much lusher and sturdier vegetation of oak, birch and beech, as opposed to the flimsier thicket of alder and willow around it. A true forest then, rising mightily out of the surrounding undergrowth.
An interesting aspect of the landscape around ‘t Woudt is that its late medieval inhabitants raised earthen mounds (terps) on which they built their farmhouses to protect them from the ravages of storm tides that perpetually threatened the land through the rivulets and streams that formed the Delta of the Maas River in the area. Usually terps are associated with Friesland, where there are hundreds, but this part of South Holland also has a number of them.
‘t Woudt is small and has remained small, and therein lies its charm. It is a village within a few miles of the Dutch seat of government at The Hague, the largest harbor of Europe in Rotterdam, and the bustling university city of Delft. The entire village is an officially designated heritage site. A cycling tour in this part of the province of South Holland is incomplete without taking the road to ‘t Woudt, the smallest village of The Netherlands… or so they say.
To learn more about 't Woudt, read Issue 52, of Dutch the magazine.
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Original article by: Tom Bijvoet