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  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

Refuge on a terp 2.0. Waiting to be liberated

pumping station Lely by Joh. H. van Mastenbroek

August 21, 1930, Wieringermeer. The reclamation of another piece of the Zuiderzee ‘southern sea’ was completed. An wooded area, when it was still land, that was called Creilerwoud. Land lost to the sea eight centuries ago, during the most destructive All Saints’ Flood in the year 1170. The embanked land – or polder in Dutch language – now being named Wieringermeerpolder, instead of Creilerwoud. A few years after the reclamation, settlers from all corners in the Netherlands moved to the new fertile land. But, it wasn’t for long these pioneers would keep their feet dry.

The first three villages founded in the Wieringermeerpolder were Sluis I, Middenmeer and Wieringerwerf. It were all functional and unassuming names. The word sluis means ‘sluice’. Later, village Sluis I was elegantly rebranded as Slootdorp, meaning ‘ditch village’. A real improvement. Middenmeer means ‘middle lake’. Hence, in the middle of the lake. Wieringerwerf means ‘werf of Wieringen’, and werf means terp which is an artificial settlement mound. Read our Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps to get a better picture of what terps are. The word werf is similar as Warf(t) used in northern Germany or werve used in province Zeeland.


Wier of Wieringen - Wieringen as such is a former island at the convergence of the (former) Zuiderzee 'southern sea' and the Wadden Sea. It's early-medieval name was UUiron, Wironi or Wirensi. All originating from the Old Frisian word 'wîr' or 'wier' meaning 'raised mound' (Van Berkel & Samplonius 2018).Therefore, the name Wieringerwerf is a tautology, namely the Wier of Wieringen. Moreover, there are indications that Vikings have settled on island Wieringen. Especially, two silver hoards found on Wieringen point towards this.


Indeed, when in 1930 Wieringerwerf was founded, a brand new terp was built too. A terp for just-in-case, so to speak, because the polder would be protected with a high dike already. It’s a fancy, four hectares big, square-shaped terp, including a top-notch sweet water well. This terp was the latest addition to the terp-building tradition that started around 600 BC on the salt marshes of the Wadden Sea in the Netherlands and Germany. And, the engineers of this just-in-case terp 2.0 had foresight indeed, as we’ll see further below.

wieringerwerf terp
construction of the terp Wieringenwerf, 1927

On April 17, 1945 at 12:00 o’clock sharp, a desperate and frustrated German army out of anger blew up the dike protecting the young Wieringermeerpolder. Most of the 7,000 inhabitants of Wieringermeerpolder fled with their bikes, horses, carriages, carts, cattle etc. away from Wieringermeerpolder, whilst the water was rising steadily to a level between 0,5 and 5 meters above the 15-years-old land. When the inhabitants of the polder reached the surrounding higher grounds and dikes, part of them were awaited by German soldiers. Some were taken prisoner, and one leader of the Resistance was shot on the spot.


Beemsterpolder – On February 21, 1945, the German army had ordered also the inundation of the Beemsterpolder already, south of the Wieringermeerpolder. At the end of May 1945, the polder had been drained again.


Not all fled. Three families from the village Wieringerwerf, in total twenty-three people, went to the just-in-case terp that day. Including some children from the city of Amsterdam, who had fled the Dutch capital a few months before during the so-called Hongerwinter ‘hunger winter’, also called the Famine of 1944-1945. Walking up the terp and hoping the rising water wouldn’t go beyond the highest level of the terp. If it did, they would be trapped. But it did not. The engineers had done a proper job fifteen years back. On the terp everyone was protected. Not only from the rising water, but also from the German army, and from the chaotic final chords of the Second World War.

modern terp dwellers (April 17- May 7, 1945)

Besides people, also animals reached the terp for safety. There were six cows, a few pigs, a goat, a sheep and some rabbits. Also a cat and a dog. The owners of the sheep and the goat were unknown. In addition, several clever – or lucky – hares stayed on the terp as well, albeit without permission. Cows provided the people with milk. Some people lived in a tent. Others on boats docked on the terp‘s slope. No moles have been sighted, so these might have had a hard time surviving the inundation of the polder.

some of the animals at the terp (April 17-May 7, 1945)

Only three days after they had occupied the terp, the first of three storms hit the area. In a way these were welcome, since it provided the fresh terp dwellers with driftwood to build a shelter. Who knows, wood washed ashore that was collected by terp dwellers, is as it was over many centuries ago, when wood was scarce too on the salt marshes of the terp regions along the coasts of the Wadden Sea. Anyway, after two more storms it was enough. The group left this safe haven on May 7, 1945. Heading for drier grounds of a country that had been liberated from its occupier in the meantime.

On December 11, 1945, the Wieringermeerpolder was made dry again, and life could resume its pace. Today, the polder has around 13,000 inhabitants.

For the folks living on the Hallig-islands of region Nordfriesland in northern Germany, the unique sight of people living on a terp surrounded by water, called Landunter, is still the daily normal. For the Dutch, it wasn’t anymore. But, once again, it proved that after 2,600 years terp culture, those raised settlement mounds are still a current and very solid solution in water management.

At the spot where the dike of the Wieringermeerpolder was blown up by the German army, on the east side of the polder, is still a scar. A beautiful one, though. At this spot, the dike makes a little semi-circular bend to the east into lake IJsselmeer. Behind this curve on landside are two kolks, so-called wielen ‘wheels’ in Dutch language. These are small lakes created by the incoming, swirling water when the dike broke in April 1945. The area around it, is forested. In contrast to much of the rest of the polder. Within this small forest, at the time of writing (2018), you have nature-camping Het Bos Roept ‘the woods call’. So, worth making a detour and stay the night there while hiking the Frisia Coast Trail.


Note 1 - If you became just as excited about terps as we are, and cannot wait to construct your own settlement mound, find here the first and only Manual Making a Terp in 12 Steps. Take care, and read the warnings carefully!

Note 2 - Hiking the Frisia Coast Trail you'll pass the young terp of Wieringerwerf. The well has been replaced by a swimming pool, though. The swimming pool is slightly in decay.

Note 3 - If you understand Dutch language, there's also a very informative documentary of the Wieringermeer catastrophe of 1945, click here.

Further reading

Berkel, van G. & Samplonius, K., Nederlandse plaatsnamen verklaard. Reeks Nederlandse plaatsnamen deel 12 (2018)

Guðmundsdóttir, L., Wood procurement in Norse Greenland (11th to 15th c. AD) (2021)

Oneindig Noord-Holland, De meidagen van 1940 (2012)

Regionaal Archief Alkmaar (website)

Rooijendijk, C., Waterwolven. Een geschiedenis van stormvloeden, dijkenbouwers en droogmakers (2009)

Zijper Museum (website)

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