The Church Bridge
When I went to and from school, I had to cross the canal. There was a small, narrow bridge, the church bridge, or in Frisian the “tsjerkedraai.” It was only for pedestrians and bicycles. The church was on the other side of the canal, hence the name of the bridge. It was a swivel bridge, and if a ship had to pass, the bridge keeper came out of his little house, unlocked the bridge, and pulled the bridge open with his long hook. He would be standing on the bridge, and he had a long stick with a small bag on it, in which the captain of the ship had to put a few pennies. When the ship had passed, the bridge was closed again, and the bridge keeper went back to his small house. It was not a real house, but a small wooden shed, from where he could see the bridge and the ships.(1)
He was an old man, we called him “Pake Sjoerd” [Transl. note: Frisian for grandpa George]. In the summer we would bring him our grass, after it was mowed, because he had rabbits and did not have much grass himself. He lived with his wife in the back of an old farmhouse. The big barn with wide, high doors faced the street. When we brought him the grass, we got a big lump of sugar candy with the string still in it. It would last a long time, but as it got smaller, the sucking became easier, and then it was soon finished. Sometimes we walked on the bridge railing. It always went OK, but I think now sometimes, that if I had fallen in the water, I would not be writing quietly now.
Over the Dwarsvaart, the canal that formed a T with the Big Canal, was a high bridge. It couldn’t turn or go up, the ships had to go under it. The skippers had to lower the mast, and move the ship under the bridge with a long pole. Of course, that worked fine, otherwise there would have been a traffic jam under the bridge. The fun part of that bridge was that there was a tow-path under it. The skipper or his wife walked in a harness on the line and pulled the ship. It was sometimes a sad sight, to see the woman, half bend over, pull the ship, and the skipper standing easily at the rudder, but it was not easy to steer the ship through the narrow canal, with other ships moving and ships laying along the banks, because there could be no collisions, and they had to go as fast as possible to get the peat, or to bring it away, because most of the ships were peat ships.
There were also houseboats, sometimes very poor ones. Once I was in such a dilapidated small boat, it was almost incomprehensible that people could live in it. Sometimes a horse would pull the boat. We could see that also when we were visiting my grandfather, who lived at a canal, the “Pekelder Hoofddiep” [Transl. note: the main canal in Nieuwe Pekela]. It was fun to watch, the ships there were frequently bigger, they could sail also on the sea, but near the coast. Ships with bales of straw for the straw board factories, and ships with potatoes for the potato flour factories. And the tram from Winschoten to Stadskanaal ran regularly along the canal. Once I was going to visit my grandfather, but in Stadskanaal I was much to early for the tram, because friends had given me a ride in their car and dropped me of in Stadskanaal at the waiting room of the tram. But I didn’t feel like waiting so long, so I started walking. After a while I met the tram going back, it was further than I thought, and with my suitcase I could not walk very fast. The tram passed me before I was at my grandfather’s house, and when I didn’t arrive with the tram, he was rather frightened. Fortunately the engineer told my grandfather, that he had seen me walking, so everything came out alright.
Next to my grandfather’s house was a side canal, called a “wijk.” From the direction of Winschoten were a large number of “wijken.”(3) Of course they were crossed by bridges, because the road had to cross them, and if you were walking along the “wijk,” you reached other canals with bridges. It was a maze of canals and ditches, all from the time of the peat industry. When I stayed with my grandfather, I went to get milk from a farmer, who lived close by. I had to cross two bridges.
Once my aunt treated me to meringues with the coffee, but I didn’t like them, too sweet. But I didn’t dare to say so. So I took it outside and threw it in the water. There it probably got soon soft. Maybe some fish have enjoyed it, who knows. Real special were the “hard breads,” hard tack, very hard, flat rolls. They stayed fresh a long time. You had to cut them in half and then put butter and cheese in between. It was good to chew on. We didn’t have them in Drachten, so it was something special for us. Groningen fruit cake I didn’t like too much, because of the candied lemon peel and ginger in it. Nowadays I do like it, but maybe there is less candied peel in it.
Later, when we moved from Drachten to Purmerend, we again came in an environment with lots of waterways and bridges, but that shall be another story.
(1) See also: Drachten: een terugblik. A lovely site with many pictures and maps. A number of the places mentioned in this and other pieces are pictured in the site (Dutch only).
(2) For more maps, see also the website of the ‘kadaster‘ (land register maps), where you can choose place and time period to view. (Dutch only, but easy to maneuver).
(3) These side canals were also called “wijken” in Drachten.