Large dragonflies hop from lily pad to lily pad, the colour of their wings constantly changing. I’m four years old and my grandmother is holding my hand. Every week, she walks along the pond of the beige manor house on Elswout country estate. This is one of my first memories of nature.
Elswout is one of the many country estates around Overveen, a village near Haarlem. In medieval times, it was called Tetterode, after the noble family who governed the land. My father often talks about the landed gentry and the knights of (Van) Tetterode. Once upon a time, there was supposedly a castle here and our family arms was made up of three lily pads. As a child, such stories captured my imagination, but they also raised questions. Now my home is a small terraced house with a garden that is just big enough for my bike, not a castle with an estate.
The nature in Overveen also captures the imagination. Any visitor to the country estates around the village can easily get lost in the history and imagine themselves a lord or lady of the manor. This is easiest to see at Elswout. Everything you see has been invented over the centuries for the experience of the choosy walker.
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That invention of nature starts in the seventeenth century, when the wealthy Amsterdam merchant Carel Molijn had a manor house built in an area where old dunes had been excavated for the construction of canal houses in Amsterdam. Around the manor house, he had a symmetrically designed, rectangular French garden laid with straight avenues, big hedges, ditches, gates and flowerbeds. There are rare flowers here, like the Saxifraga granulata Plena, a white flower shaped like a tiny sun.
Yet today, not much of Elswout is geometric. That’s down to Jacob Boreel who, according to the fashion of the eighteenth century, had a romantic English landscape garden laid. His dream is still visible. Among artificial hills, there are true-to-life streams crossed by wooden Lord of the Rings-type bridges. Footpaths wind past tea houses and an orangery, a greenhouse for tropical plants.
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The pools are teeming with geese and in the woods of Elswout and the neighbouring estates of Koningshof, Duinlust and Middenduin, deer trot past.
Leaving the old gate of Elswout, a residential area of Haarlem appears behind a large field. It’s as if you suddenly wake up to the real world.
How do you get there? Take the train to Zandvoort aan Zee from Amsterdam or Haarlem and get out at Overveen station.
What is there to see and do? You can walk and cycle, which is nice to combine with a day at the beach of Zandvoort or Bloemendaal, or a visit to the historic city of Haarlem.
Flora & fauna: A wide variety of birds, flowers and trees, deer, foxes and European bison.
Where can you get information? At Staatsbosbeheer, an organisation which also has an office in Overveen.