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The Heritage as a Resource


Putting heritage to work in Friesland [Netherlands]:
this flat country of ours


For a long time devoted exclusively and intensively to
farming, Friesland is turning to other activities to
ensure a serene future. The identity and rich heritage of
this region, its closeness to large urban centres are all
major opportunities for the development of cultural tourism.


The orchestra starts playing the final song. The 71 actors and people with walk-on parts invade the enormous four storey-high stage which is supposed to represent a London neighbourhood in the last century. The 700 in the audience loudly applaud these amateur actors of all ages who have just magnificently performed the musical play adaptation of Dickens's "Oliver Twist" [1]. Are we in Soho? On Broadway? Not at all: simply in Jorwerd (240 inhabitants), a small Frisian village which for the past 44 years has been organising an ambitious show in the Frisian language [2]. "The 8 000 tickets for the 11 performances scheduled this year sold out in a few hours," proudly announces Jan Schotanus, who translated the text into Frisian.

"The success of Jorwerd has spread throughout the region, and 9 villages now have their summer theatre," says Pyt Vellinga, president of the cultural association which manages the event. "You know," he says, "I think that organising a show of this kind can work either in a big city or, if not, in a village like this one where voluntary work and rural solidarity are omnipresent. However, setting up an event like this brings people together and at the same time enriches their cultural and social life."


Success story

Jorwerd is one of those villages with an angel watching over it. One of those villages where, no one knows why, the craziest of projects seems destined to succeed. In 1953, only recently rebuilt after the war, the church tower collapsed (!). Far from being discouraged, the villagers decided to organise a show to collect the necessary funds for the second reconstruction. The owner of a large park in the heart of the village lent it for the event. A bank contributed financially to the project. The entire population became involved. The operation was a success. Repeated each year, it has steadily grown: almost entirely self-financed, the 1997 production will have cost ECU 100 000 and mobilised 140 people, most of them voluntary.

And as if this success were not enough, a writer from Amsterdam only recently made the village famous throughout the Netherlands by publishing "How God left Jorwerd" [3], the story of contemporary rural life which was an instant success across the country. "People come from all over the Netherlands to see Jorwerd, its famous church tower, its school, the house of one character or another in the book..."note Klaas Bijleveld and Sijbe Roosma, LEADER officials for the Province of Friesland. And they add: "next year, the forty fifth production is coinciding with the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of the poet Jan Jacob Slauerhoff who has his roots here. Luck sometimes works in your favour!"

Like the very opulent-looking architecture of the village, the cultural dynamism of Jorwerd must not conceal the profound problems that rural Friesland as a whole is experiencing: for a long time a model of efficiency and productivity, Frisian agriculture is also having some difficulties because of ground pollution and milk quotas in particular, and an accelerated concentration of farms. These are all factors that have resulted in a major exodus of young people and a certain deterioration of services. "We had to get out of the situation of only having one activity and develop non-agricultural sectors," says Klaas Toering, president of the DBF (Dorp en Bedrijf Friesland), a support network for the creation and development of small businesses in rural areas. "We identified three possible avenues: local products, recreational activities and tourism. All three are based to a large extent on the utilisation of heritage, be it cultural, architectural, culinary or related to the landscape."


Culture and tourism

For the past ten years or so, Friesland has resolutely turned to the development of cultural tourism, using architectural heritage first: behind the endless rows of poplar trees and the apparent monotony of the immense plain wrested from the sea over the centuries are small hidden treasures – churches from the Middle Ages built on hillocks, manors and castle farms straight out of the Golden Century of the Netherlands, villages that look so prosperous that the most humble house resembles a private mansion...

As early as 1986, the provincial authorities launched the programme "Monument of the Month" which consists of putting the spotlight on a certain number of buildings or sites for at least one month several times a year. Cultural events are organised in tandem, local products are also given a position of prominence and quality documentation is distributed at the regional and/or national level. Since the programme was launched, 78 "Monument of the Month" events have been organised.

With the "Action Plan for Culture and Tourism" developed by the Province in 1992, a process began of seeking to combine the creation of enterprises, tourism development and promotion of the Frisian culture as a whole. A foundation was created in order to facilitate the plan's implementation: "Kultuer en Toerisme yn Fryslân" (Culture and Tourism in Friesland) serves as an interface between the regional and local authorities, the cultural institutions and the tourist and recreational sector. It also provides technical assistance to all the actors concerned by the development of cultural tourist products.

With the help of LEADER I (ECU 150 000), the Foundation began the "stedsloazjeminten" project, reconverting disused buildings of historic interest into first-rate tourist accommodation in four of the "Eleven Frisian Towns". Having acquired these buildings from municipalities for a symbolic price, the Foundation coordinates the restoration plans and supervises the work which is done by local contractors whenever possible. Once restored, the buildings remain the property of the Foundation but are leased to private operators. The action has already given buildings of character renewed use and vitality in three towns, creating 35 jobs.

"The main difficulty is not so much to find customers," explains Hieke Joustra who coordinates the project "but rather to complement the attraction of the accommodation proposed by combining discovery activities. That is why we have come up with 'cultural packages', tourist products which include accommodation and access to sites, museums, events, etc. including in the low season."



As part of this strategy and around the "Eleven Towns" which comprise the tourist element that unifies the region, the LEADER intervention consists of reviving a certain number of cultural poles located out in the countryside. LEADER I helped, for example, finance the facilities of the interpretation centre in Hogebeintum, a place that explains the history of the "terpen" (hillocks), artificial mounds that served as ultimate protection against a sea that was barely kept in check by dykes. LEADER II has invested ECU 92 000 in the "Unia-Stata" project: rather than try and rebuild at great cost its castle which was completely destroyed in the 18th century, the small village of Beers has decided to raise a metal structure respecting the actual forms and dimensions of the original building, its "skeleton" so to speak. Currently being built, the structure resembles a gigantic sculpture with a startling trompe l'oeil effect. The area around the site – a hillock as well – is also being restored and the new steel "keep" which will be completed in winter 1997-98 will offer the visitors an unrestricted view over the Frisian "platteland".

"The many social and voluntary activities of the villages is one of the key assets that rural Friesland has to succeed in its restructuring," remarks Jan van Weperen, coordinator of the Noordwest Friesland LEADER group. "The total investments from LEADER II directly devoted to the development of heritage amount to over ECU 1 million, but all these efforts would be in vain without the involvement of the networks of mutual assistance, all these cultural and sport associations which are the wealth and strength of our rural communities."

[1] "Oliver!", creation by Lionel Bart.
[2] This language of the Western Germanic group,
midway between English and Dutch, is understood by 94%,
spoken by 73% and fluently used by 54% of the inhabitants
of the province of Friesland (according to a 1984 study).
Awaiting to receive official status, Frisian is taught in
a number of schools and has administrative and legal
recognition at the provincial level. It is the language of
communication used by the majority in most of the
Frisian rural areas.
[3] Geert Mak, "Hoe God uit Jorwerd verdween", 1996.
Atlas van de Litteratuur, Postbus 13, 1000 AA Amsterdam.
The title refers to the changes in values (decline in
religious influence, in particular) observed in Dutch rural areas.


source: LEADER Magazine No.17 - Spring, 1998

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