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First published by Sea Kayaker Magazine in October 1997

John draws a map with his finger in the dust of the ferry sign. A capital D for Delft. He stabs near the top of the D. W are in the north, my Dutch friend tells me. “Turn right from this canal when you’ve gone a little way, and all the turnings lead into town. “ I slide the white Legend from the grass to the dark water, where a tugboat muscles a large barge with a dozen containers towards The Hague. The water bounces, rushing into the vegetation on the bank. An angler catapults live maggots, white into the waves. He has set his tent beside the canal, by the cycle path. There are more maggoty fishers ahead, lines strung like spiders webs to foul the unwary boater.

I want to quit this water road and explore the “delfts”, or drainage channels, within the city. I lay flat on my deck to squeeze beneath a low bridge and exit the main canal. This reminds me of ducking into a low sea cave. Beyond this arch is a completely different world: a narrow canal, a houseboat to the left – nothing more than a clapboard box in pale, unpainted planks. To the right, a brick wall rises from the water to white-painted iron railings: a row of green trees separates the narrow road from the water, and the gabled brick houses stand side by side by side. Geraniums sprout out from pots and window boxes.

I cruise gently into town. Church bells ring in the still air. People sit in the sun outside a café drinking beer. I enter a damp tunnel and discover a side tunnel. My paddle strokes sound crisp in here. I am alone in this private space. A few kayakers suddenly appear and pass me, their faces alert in this underground world. I greet them, noting their jeans and shirts splashed with water. “Hi!” I cannot reply to the comments in Dutch.

I take a corner into a ribbon of water between the street and a wall of buildings. Through windows a couple of feet above the water, I view washing hung up to dry, a sink full of dirty plates and a man wearing only underpants in a dim hallway. The ribbon runs to a low bridge that I can just limbo beneath. I stop when I realize I am approaching a dead end. I am behind the tourist office by the square. The channel is too narrow for me to turn around. To climb out to turn around would be too awkward. I reverse out, smelling drying laundry, and garlic cooking as I pass the windows beside the water.

I carefully turn just beyond the low bridge. I am hemmed in by brick walls. One mistake and this happy crowd will hear the crash of fiberglass against ancient baked clay. It’s the 750th anniversary of this town. This land has been sinking over the years. All the waterways are below sea level; more than four meters below sea level. If it weren’t for the dikes and canals, I would be paddling on salt water, on the sea. The leaning church tower would stand in water. It has a strange lean. The tower slopes one way, but the top angles the other way to balance it. Why? One local told me it was built on cow hides to prevent the building from sinking into the soft earth, but it sank a little on one side anyway, while building was in progress, so the architect made a few adjustments to the top section to balance it.

White water-lily flowers, great green floating leaves and green beer cans. Bottles and bikes. Seems there are only the white railings around the canals to prevent the bikes from ending up in the water. A distorted wheel hangs by a chain locked to the railing. What happened to the rest of the bike? When the town decided to dredge the narrow canals so that tour boats could operate, they hauled more than two thousand bicycles out of the mud.

I was going to stop for coffee at the café on the barge, the one with blue umbrellas, but it is closed. Sunday. I suppose I could find another, but I’d hoped to sit in the sun and let my damp clothes dry. Besides, I like that café. It sits across from an elegant house beside tall reed-like iron railings. This was once the home of Anthony Van Leewenhoek, the man who observed the magnifying power of a drop of water and went on to construct the first microscope. We owe our modern lenses to Leewenhoek’s initial observations.

Close by is a tunnel. “boterbrug” says the sign. I pass into cool darkness. The sound of my paddle-strokes echo a little. I feel pleasantly alone here, surrounded by brick, moving toward the circle of light that is the exit. Butter bridge is the widest bridge in town at ninety meters from side to side, or a tunnel ninety meters long depending on your viewpoint. This structure of tiny clay bricks, more than four hundred years old, was built to accommodate the flat-bottomed barges that carried butter. In the heat of summer, the barges were tied up under the bridge to keep the butter cool. Nearby was the old weigh-house and the butter market.  

The low arch makes for a cambered street above that scarcely hints at the canal benath, or me on the canal. I pause in this man-made cave to savor a moment’s peace away from the clamor of the streets that line the canals. Turning into the bustle and sunshine once more, I drift again, this time to view a series of arched bridges, one beneath another, and a bridge inside that one, and so on until the bridges become very small in the distance. It’s a city of echoes. Each canal seems to echo the previous, and each intricate roof-top gable that reaches in steps and curves, tight, tall and narrow is reminiscent of another in another street.

I come upon a barge moored against a wall. A black wooden hull topped with white umbrellas and boxes of bright geraniums. It offers extra seating for a pub. I wouldn’t mind a pint of the locally-brewed blonde beer, sharp and refreshing with a slice of lemon. As the canal system was extended, from the thirteenth century onward, it was perfectly positioned as a center for import and export. In particular, it was the production and export of butter, cloth, woven carpets and Deft beer that brought prosperity to the town. Almost two hundred breweries were built beside the canals!  

A duck swims beneath a brick arch. I hear a bicycle chain and the noise of tires on cobbles. I turn. The young woman cycling the road beside the canal grins at me. She has a nice face. I smile back. Her long fair hair drifts out behind her. She leans the corner and pedals up and over the arch of the bridge, then turns to freewheel down the cobbled street, weaving between the pedestrians. My eyes follow her progress down the road beside the canal, her long legs and straight back soon lost behind the pollarded lime trees. I paddle on, a splash of water trickles down my shoulder. Feels good.

Witches’ water. A window box overflowing with brilliant red geraniums overhangs the river from a house where an artist once struggled to make a living, and finally died. Upon his death, his paintings soared in price. At this corner, behind the church, women suspected of being witches were thrown into the water. If they were able to swim, they were declared to be witches and were dragged into the square and burned to death, along with any daughters they had. If they were unable to swim, the population watched them drown, whereupon they were declared innocent.

Near the north end of town once more, I find my low bridge by the houseboat and lie flat against my deck to squeeze through. I’m back on the main canal. The charm of the old city is suddenly lost. An oarsman passes me, pull and surge, pause to reposition, pull and surge. Another is approaching in a long slender scull, oars scooping the water. 

I enter a small canal on my left. This one threads between some trees and factory. Houseboats sit beneath the trees, moored alongside the bank with more space than most of the houses on land. The factory gates are closed. Quiet. Ducks scoot out from beside the boats. I come to a dead-end and drift back, stopping among the water-lilies, the beer cans rocking as my wake spreads slowly out. I stretch, arching across the back deck. There’s a sweet smell of flowers. Blue sky. Just a couple of clouds going nowhere, like me.

A Bit about the History

A “delft” is a “dug” waterway, or canal. The old delft from which the present town takes its name is thought to have been dug in 1100, and the town supposedly grew up around the castle built after the capture of Holland in 1070. The new delft was dug parallel to the old one. The town received municipal rights from Duke William the second in 1246.

Like many mediaeval towns, Delft was periodically hit by disasters. A major fire in 1536 destroyed all but the stone buildings in two-thirds of the town, and a year later the population suffered badly from the plague. In 1654, the gunpowder in the town’s artillery depot blew up. At that time, Delft was one of only seven armament suppliers in Holland, and the demand for munitions was great, with shipping companies on the one hand defending themselves against the Spanish Armada, and on the other pursuing a lucrative trade in piracy against the English and French. The fire destroyed part of the town, and after that the munitions factory was repositioned a little further away.  

Delft is probably best known for its pottery: “Delft Blue” with its distinctive blue glaze on white, frequently depicting scenes of sailing barges, windmills and girls in winged hats and clogs.

Often winter temperatures cause many of the canals to freeze. Residents wearing ice-skates cruise above fish frozen in the transparent layers. Possible thin ice beneath bridges and in tunnels is all that might deter winter-time exploration on foot where I cruised by kayak.

© Nigel Foster