Experience the South Holland Country Estate Zone
Walking routes through Leidschendam-Voorburg, Rijswijk, Voorschoten, and Wassenaar
There are some two hundred country estates left in the province of South Holland. These are all places of exceptional natural beauty, offering fascinating windows to the history of the Netherlands. Besides important elements of our cultural heritage, these estates are true oases of space and natural splendour.
Most of these country estates are situated on natural elevations in the landscape. The bulk – around eighty – are located in South Holland on the old beach ridges between The Hague and Hillegom. This Landgoederenzone Zuid-Holland (South Holland Country Estate Zone) is unique in the Netherlands from a cultural, historical, and landscape perspective, reminding us of the influential economic and administrative position the Netherlands has maintained for centuries.
The Republic of the United Netherlands, proclaimed in 1588, developed into a leading country. The 17th century, the Golden Age, saw a thriving trade, a blossoming economy, as well as astounding cultural and scientific achievements. Regents and wealthy merchants dominated the prosperous Dutch cities. Most of the cities were expanded with canal rings, and beautiful canal houses were built overseeing the water. The urban elite also focused their attention on the surrounding countryside. In order to be able to enjoy tranquility and fresh air, wealthy residents commissioned the landscaping of so-called ‘playgrounds’ or ‘pleasure gardens’.
The very rich could afford the luxury of purchasing a country estate. Such a property provided them with prestige and respect. This was mainly reserved for administrators on a national level. Virtually all country estates were built in the 17th and 18th century. The possession of a country estate afforded status to the owner as well as practical advantages, as despite the prosperity, life in Dutch cities was far from easy at the time. There was no clean water, no sewerage system, and no waste treatment. As a result, diseases would break out frequently, especially in summer. Anyone who could afford it would prefer to spend the summertime in healthy, fresh air.
The villages on the old beach ridges on the seashore offered excellent locations for country estates. Situated in lovely, richly wooded areas, they were easily accessible from cities such as The Hague and Leiden. A town like Voorschoten, for instance, was home to dozens of countryside mansions. When barge canals were dug in the 17th century, the number of country houses along these waterways increased significantly. Travelling by towing barge was more convenient than by carriage, and it was a lot easier to transport household effects to the summerhouse and have visitors come over.
Many country estates had a farm on the premises. In some instances, the estate itself was a refurbished farmhouse, such as Backershagen and Duinrell in Wassenaar. Others were built on top of or near the remains of medieval castles, including Te Werve in Rijswijk. Some few country estates were built for the sole purpose of relaxation. The best known example in the South Holland Country Estate Zone is Hofwijck in Voorburg, which was built on the instructions of Constantijn Huygens, a Dutch diplomat, scholar, poet, and composer.
Life on the country estate
Besides the living quarters, the country estates usually included one or several farmsteads and service buildings. Back then, people enjoyed a cool drink in summer as much as we do today, so ice houses were built, storing blocks of ice sometimes for several years. Furthermore, there were facilities such as gazebos, deer parks, aviaries, and fish ponds. Some of them included an orangery. Special species of plants were imported, and many country estate owners built up a collection of plants from all over the world.
In those days, many people were fascinated with gardens and spent a lot of time perfecting them. Classical French gardens, with their symmetrical geometric shapes, path systems, and vistas, were very popular in the 17th century. In the 18th century, this formal style was replaced by the entirely different English landscape garden, characterized by structured informality, with winding paths, gently turning streams, and strolling lawns set against groves of trees. To add an even more picturesque and romantic flavour, designers would sometimes include recreations of classical temples and Gothic ruins.
By the end of the 17th century, a gradual economic decline set in. Most owners of country estates did not suffer much from the recession at first. They withdrew from trade, invested their money in bonds, and retired to live off their investments. Contrary to what one would expect, many estates were expanded in the course of the 18th century.
The great fade-out
The glory days of the country estate ended in the Batavian-French Period (1795-1813). Public administration was centralized, and the urban patricians and the aristocracy lost their political power. Revolutionary ideas of freedom, equality, and brotherhood gave rise to criticism of the social inequality caused by the old class differences. Possessions of noblemen were confiscated and sold after the Batavian Revolution, and a number of manors were demolished. Inheritance law was reformed, dictating that possessions were to be divided among all heirs, which made it difficult to keep estates intact. In the meantime, owners of country estates were getting into dire straits financially, as due to the huge debt burden on the national government, interests on government bonds were only partially paid out. The retired owners of country estates suffered a major loss of income as a result.
The Batavian-French Period came to an end, and in 1815, the Kingdom of the Netherlands was founded. The old balance of power was somewhat restored, but this could not prevent that many estates never made it into the next century. In the course of the 19th century, it became obvious that economic developments threatened the very existence of many of the country estates in South Holland. In the dune areas, many of them disappeared as it was more profitable to mine dune sand from these sites and use it for the construction of roads and railways.
Around 1870, when industrialization gained ground also in South Holland and the economy flourished, many new urban districts were built to accommodate the growing population, including the residential districts of De Kievit and Marlot in Wassenaar. Several manors had to make way for these projects, as well as for the construction of factories and new infrastructure. In 1868, for instance, a railway line was constructed that ran right through the once meticulously designed garden of Hofwijck.
By the end of the century, property developers would buy up country estates for the purpose of building villas on the sites. In addition, country houses were sold to hospitals and psychiatric institutions. The few remaining owner-occupiers of mansions in the country were confronted with ever increasing staffing costs in the 20th century, making it virtually impossible to maintain the buildings and the gardens. As a result of these developments, the majority of country estates in South Holland simply vanished between 1850 and 1950.
Value and recognition
Since the 1970s of the 20th century, we have seen increasing recognition of the value of country estates in terms of cultural and historical heritage, and ecological and recreational importance. Despite this growing recognition, an iconic country estate like Duinrell in Wassenaar was demolished as recently as in 1986. It was not until the Monuments and Historic Buildings Act was adopted in 1988 that historical country estates, including their parks, were protected as ‘historic country house complexes’. There are just a few remaining privately owned historic estates left today, but the majority have taken on a new life as office buildings, conference centres, and hotels. Hofwijck, the country house of Constantijn Huygens, is now a museum, and its garden has been reconstructed a few years ago.