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Vincent and the humdinging, honey-drippingly delicious hunebedden

Drenthe is a remote province in the far east of the Netherlands and was once a wild area of heaths and moorland, where its sparse population scratched a living from agriculture and peat-cutting. The bogs were mostly drained and the turf cut out during the first half of the 20th century but the area remains sparsely populated (by Dutch standards), mostly rural with large tracts of mixed forest. Now, vast, wide sandy fields are punctuated by lines of trees, farmsteads and barns with deep plunging thatched rooves which have the appearance of sliding back into the earth. I had wanted to visit Drenthe for many years for two reasons: the hunebedden and Vincent van Gogh, but had never quite had enough excuse (as if one were needed) to visit. An invitation from an old friend to attend her husband's surprise 50th masked ball at a castle in central Holland -which doesn't happen very often- provided the impetus to do so. (Thanks Hans!)

The hunebedden, (literally, 'giants' graves') are a series of chambered tombs in varying states of ruin, built 5500 years ago by Drenthe's late neolithic residents. There are 53 hunebedden within a 30kms radius. In the short time we had we managed to see nine of them.

For me the other major attraction of Drenthe is Vincent van Gogh. Vincent came to Drenthe in October 1883 in search of peace, inspirational landscapes and rural workers who he could paint to satisfy his craving to be a painter of peasants. He first went to Hoogeveen, but finding it not rural enough, took a sailing barge (the only means of transport) along the main canal to Nieuw-Amsterdam, a tiny village just south of Emmen, where he stayed for two months. He found the landscape to be as rough and rural as he wanted it to be, but the people here were hostile to him – an outsider – and he became very lonely. However he kept himself busy making studies of the landscape and of the sowers, turf-cutters, bargemen and diggers in their darkly beautiful land. This is a much-overlooked and misunderstood period in Vincent's early development as an artist and I wanted to see it for myself, for Vincent himself said it was here, in Drenthe he taught himself to paint. What better year to come than 2003, the 150th anniversary of his birth.

There is no evidence that Vincent visited any hunebedden as the nearest one to his lodgings was 12kms away – too long a walk in a day and too expensive to go by cart or barge, though he would certainly have known about them: they are as well-known in the Netherlands as Stonehenge is in Britain.

It's a long drive from Oxford to Drenthe. We amused ourselves enroute listening to Bob Dylan and Pat Metheny and looking out for strange straplines on commercial vehicles. To my amazement, I spotted a laundry delivery van over which was emblazened "Passionate about your laundry"... which is, surely, only a whisker away from "unnaturally interested in your soiled underwear." We also liked the hint of alchemy in "Turning potatoes into profit for you". Hmmmm....

Our first stop after our 150 mile drive from the Hoek was the Logement Scholte in Nieuw-Amsterdam, the house where Vincent lodged during his stay. The van Gogh Foundation have restored it from near dereliction for the 150th anniversary and a small visitor centre (I was the only visitor when we went!) tells the story of the artist's motivations, interests, difficulties and successes. The front part of the house is now an excellent café/bar/restaurant and is restored with late 19th century furnishing and fittings. The food is excellent (try the pork satay!) and almost certainly of a better standard than the rough potatoes, cabbage and meat eaten here by Vincent. However, I suspect the beer was just as good.

We sat outside on the terrace in the early summer sunshine and contemplated the scene as it might have been 120 years ago, as Vincent documented it. The old wooden lifting bridge is gone, replaced by a modern metal construction, but the line of the canal is unchanged, as is the crossroads. It wasn't hard to imagine Vincent disembarking from the sailing barge here, thinking to himself "this'll do" and crossing the road to the Logement Scholte. His unkempt appearance initially raised concerns but when he quoted the bible and told Mr Scholte his father was a Pastor in Brabant, he was allowed to stay. Vincent set straight to work in the landscape recording its rhythms, its exploitation its nature as the local peasants laboured to feed their families. He painted the heavy thatched rooves of the cottages, standing out black against the endless horizon, perhaps a fleck of pink paint representing a lamp in a window, the only ray of hope in an otherwise bleak scene. His work from this time is not pretty. But it is dramatic, expressive, earthy and passionate. Don't expect to like them. Instead, admire their somber mood, grunting rawness, and the sweat to express the harsh reality and dignity of the men and women working this landscape. So remote is this place that Vincent found it impossible to obtain art materials. He wrote to his brother Theo daily to beg him to send more brushes, more paints, more paper, more canvas.

Hunting hunebedden
So we drove out into the landscape, which in early June 2003 was green and bright under hot sunshine, to search for views of rural life and for hunebedden. Twenty kilometers north of Emmen is the irrestistably pretty village of Borger where the authorities have built a national hunebedden information centre alongside the"> Netherlands largest hunebed, D27 (the Dutch give their ancient sites numbers not names.) This big one has nine colossal capstones, and is complete with endstones and a porch and is 25ms long. It sits like some terrifying overgrown insect larva in a pretty wooded glade on the edge of the village. Impressive though it is, for my money, it suffers from being 'The Big Star' and such a tourist attraction, so I made a quick sketch and we moved on. As we drove back through Borger, we noticed a very welcoming typically Dutch café/bar called 'De Harbarg' with a very sunny terrace which called to us to stop by for a glass of frothing beverage. At this point, Traff wanted to stay put for a while, whilst I wanted to see more big, old rock constructions. So Traff stayed here to conduct practical research into the comparative benefits of Heineken versus Hoegaarden, Hertog Jan versus Duval. I asked the landlord directions to hunebedden D28 and D29 and left Traff to his studies.

Just to kilometers out of Borger as you drive east towards Buinen if you look to you right, in a sandy field, you will clearly see D28 and D29 in their own little state-owned space. Indeed, all hunebedden except the ruinous one at Westernesch are nationally maintained. It gave me a little thrill of excitement that I had found this one so easily. It was quite discreetly signposted and might easily have been missed.

A short stroll of 50ms or so from the car and"> you approach to D29 first. D28 lies just 10 or 15ms beyond it. They are both very similarly sized, both having clearly originally having three capstones, but now both only have two. This two-for-the-price-of-one double whammy of hunebedden get you thinking about how similar they are. It's not until you have seen more do you realise that these are absolutely typical hunebedden: the state of disrepair (both having lost their barrow), the construction of the chamber, the size (about 7 or 8ms long) and the stones themselves. In this once-boggy-now-sandy landscape massive granite (I think) boulders have been gathered and split by some means (fire and water?). Their appearance is similar over the whole province, the capstones looking over-sized broken pebbles, or mushroom caps. Indeed, having now seen so many British ancient sites, it is interesting to compare them with the hunebedden stylistically.

Imagine comparing a van Gogh self-portrait to a Cezanne self-portrait. You can immediately see that they were painting during the same period. Their aims were the same. They used the same raw basic materials and aimed to provoke similar responses in the viewer and fulfilled the same purpose. However, their brushwork is different, their visions are different, they come from the same period, but belong to different 'schools'. They speak the same language, but with different accents. So it is with the hunebedden when compared with British chambered tombs, dolmens and the like.

Anyway, this stylistic difference stuck me immediately on seeing D28 and D29. I sat in the dappled shade of the big oak trees surrounding them and as a pair of siskins danced in the branches above me, I made a quick sketch of D29.

Later in the afternoon, we searched in vain for the rebuilt beauty at Schoonoord, (D49), driving up and down the forest tracks. I swear I virtually smell this one at one point, but despite our search, and lacking anything more than a Michelin road map to guide us, we failed. We compensated with a delicious Dutch dinner back at a restaurant in Emmen and I watched spellbound as the red disc of the sun sunk lower over the wide flat horizon casting a lemon yellow glow over a wheatfield.

The next morning was purely given over the hunebedden hunting and if you're based in Emmen, you are spoilt for choice. We only had time to swing by another six, starting with the"> magnificent langgraf ('long grave') of Emmen Schimmeres (D43). Easy to find and signposted on the west side of the Odoorn to Emmen road, this remarkable long barrow demonstrates clearly what the other hunebedden must have once looked like, probably only a few centuries ago. Traff's initial response was 'It's Waylands Smithy!' A long lozenge shape, about 40 ms in length and 5 ms in width, two chambers were emerging from what remains of the barrow as it slowly sinks away over time. Surrounded by imposing kerbstones (some repositioned), up to 6 feet high in places this place really got me excited! As at Waylands, people had visited to party in private and had lit a small fire, leaving some trash in their wake. Traff spent some time clearing up the empty fag packs and cans, whilst I photographed this gorgeous and unique place.

No sooner were we on the road going north again than we spotted D41, opposite the modern apartment blocks of Emmen's northern suburb of Emmermeer. Only metres from the busy road, lying resplendently in its own patch of undrained moorland this little hunebed has four beautiful mushroom-like capstones and feels just like D28 and D29. Delightful, very pretty and dead easy to find.

Due to Traff's finely-honed and excellent navigation, we easily found D38, D39 and D40 the trio of 'grafheuvels' in the Valther Forest, just north of Emmen. It would be a fairly long walk to them from the road, so risking the wrath of the forest ranger and being completely unable to read the signs, I drove up the sandy forest track until we found them in a bright forest clearing.

You approach D40 first, which is the most complete of the trio. Two great capstones are supported by six sidestones which seemed to us to have more beneath the ground level than above. Strike off to the west for 20 metres through the low growing heathers and you find D38 and D39D39. D39 is much ruined but still has one almighty capstone to impress and the architectural foundations of the chamber are clearly seen. 8 metres away is D38, which is in a very sorry state, and now inhabited by a colony of vociferous, large and not-to-be-trifled-with red ants. All three have distinct round raised ringed walls of sand hinting at the size and scale of what once must've been quite a necropolis of round barrows.

We sat in the hot sunshine and I made a sketch of D40 and Traff considered the conundrum of the sandy soil. Is this natural? How could it *not* be so (there being so much sand). Was it reclaim? No, it couldn't be because these hunebeds had sat on it for so long! Has it always been like this (since the hunebedden were built)? For Traff, the sandy soil presented all kinds of conundra. Hans Meijer, author of has since provided the answer. He told me: "The sandy soil is very natural. The strong icy winds blew the sand from the dry North Sea during the last Ice Age, which ended about 10,000 years ago, to this area. Underneath the sand the hunebedbuilders found the big boulders, deposited during the Saale Ice-Age, about 150.000 yeard ago, when Drenthe was covered by a thick layer of polar ice."

Drive back into Emmen and out the other side past the railway station on the Boslaan into yet another forested area , the Emmer Dennen, and you will find D45, the great Emmen hunebed just a 10 minute walk from the city centre. I had seen a photo of it on Hans Meijer's wonderful site , but it didn't prepare me for the mammoth, in-yer-face gorgeousness of it! Again surrounded by mature mixed woodland, this impressed me more than the biggest hunebed of them all that we had first seen at Borger, in fact I find it hard to believe that the one at Borger is bigger. The lime irredescent flash of a woodpecker as it swooped through the branches"> lead our way towards it. On a high raised area of what remains of the barrow, six whopping capstones are held aloft by at least 17 uprights. It has endstones, a porch and I counted 13 kerbstones which once would've marked the edge of the barrow's gigantic footprint. Apparently there once were 38 kerbstones, but who cares? The 13 that remain are sufficient evidence of a very tall, grand structure indeed.

Lunchtime again. After driving around for a while looking for a nice watering hole and failing (but we did see some more beautiful countryside), we decided to return to Logement Scholte in Nieuw-Amsterdam for beers and Dutch applecake before continuing our journey back westward to meet friends in Zeist where a masked ball at the Kastel t'Slot (it's dead posh!) required our attendance.

We were the only non-Dutch guests at the ball and those that we spoke to were very surprised to hear that we'd been to Drenthe. None I met had been. "Drenthe? Really! Why?" All of them were surprised to learn that arguably their nation's most famous son, Vincent, had taught himself to paint there. Some I spoke to had heard of hunebedden but didn't actually know what they were. All of them were delighted to hear that we, a normal (well, that's debatable) English couple, had taken the trouble to go beyond Amsterdam and look deeper into the Netherlands to find secret places that they didn't even know existed. The secret's out now so better go there… fast!

See Jane's hunebedden webpage featuring more photos.

Jane Posted by Jane
12th June 2003ce
Edited 31st October 2004ce

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