Maastricht, the NetherlandsIn the spring of 1997 I was on a class field trip to the southernmost corner of the Netherlands, near the border with Germany and Belgium. We were headed to a distinct geographic area—the only place in the country with some hefty hills. I can still picture what we came to see—holloways, lanes that have been hollowed out deep within the landscape, edged with knotted willows while other trees and plants clung to their steep slopes. On the bus ride home, I decided I had found it—the most beautiful part of the country.
Holloways are found in Dutch and Belgian Limburg—both countries have a province of the same name—sometimes several yards deep and often lush with vegetation. They were carved millennia ago by erosion, usually through a stream that made its way from the plateau down into the valley.
Eventually they were worn further by farmers and livestock as they were adapted as routes, evolving into what’s also known as sunken lanes. Once the earth was loosened, nature did the rest, washing away soil, which deepened the lanes. They became lovely scars on the landscape, vital for both man and beast.
While holloways can be found in neighboring countries, including England, France, and Germany, hundreds are concentrated in this corner of Europe.
More than just agricultural byways, the lanes form a cultural tapestry. They’ve connected villages and people. The branches of the willows that lined the lanes were used as firewood or for making brooms; baskets were woven from the willow shoots.
The holloways harbor a profusion of flora and fauna. The particular soil mix—loess, sandy loam, and limestone—and unusual microclimate nurture a habitat in which species otherwise rare in the Netherlands thrive. Bats use them to orient themselves, and badgers build their dens there. The lanes are relatively isolated from the wind and the sun—favorable conditions for shade-loving plants.
But these idyllic landscapes are under pressure. As the practical uses for willow branches declined, lane maintenance dropped off. Many were paved over. Intensive agriculture released pesticides and nitrates from the adjacent fields into them, with disastrous results for the special ecosystem.
Reporting by bicycle
Twenty-five years after that field trip, I decide to see their current state for myself, and what better way than by bicycle. I map out a route in Limburg, where I cycle for two days, an undulating journey through villages lost in time. I returned on half a dozen occasions by car—in part to appreciate the holloways in different seasons.
My tour begins in Maastricht, the province’s urban center, and I cycle south. Once outside the city, I’m riding uphill through several lanes that are now paved over. At the village of Sint Geertruid, I brake for Schone Grub, whose name translates as “beautiful holloway.” It lies in a forest where the Netherlands forestry service has given nature a free hand. Every tree that falls rests in the spot where it landed.
It’s spring, and the wild garlic is ready to burst into bloom, blanketing the slopes of the holle wegen. The Dutch word for wild garlic, daslook, translates as “badger garlic.” Badgers dig their dens, called sets, on the steep slopes, bringing their young into the world simultaneously with the garlic bloom. It’s amazing that this still exists in the Netherlands, I say to a friend cycling with me—a little piece of primeval forest. Things may not be going so badly for nature after all.
Wouter Jansen has a different opinion. Jansen works for a foundation dedicated to the preservation and development of the province’s landscape. After my cycling tour, photographer David Peskens and I arrange to meet him a few miles from Schone Grub to hike along a couple of lanes.
Jansen has a checklist with about 15 herbs and other plants—wild arum, stinking hellebore, herb Paris—species that once grew lushly here but now can be found only here and there. During our hike we encounter an older lady, also carrying a list. “Have you seen the wild arum?” she asks.
Meanwhile, Jansen expresses concern. “The decline is a silent killer,” he says. There are fewer “special” species than 25 years ago, but he’s focused on vegetation he would rather not see: stinging nettle, European dewberry, lesser celandine, and ground elder. Nitrogen levels have increased, mostly from agriculture, and these nitrogen-loving species have visibly taken over.
“Heartbreaking,” Jansen says, shaking his head. “Nitrates remain in the soil for a very long time. The ivy that you see everywhere is choking everything.” Where at first I thought I was seeing delicious dewberries, I, like Jansen, now see silent killers.
Geert Gabriëls, commissioner for nature, environment, and heritage of the Dutch province of Limburg, acknowledges the dwindling biodiversity. “The lanes are among the treasures of South Limburg,” he says. “The problem is complex. Often, for instance, it’s not even clear in some areas who the sunken lanes belong to—sometimes they have multiple owners.”
The roots of decline
Searching for an answer on when the decline started, I came across a book written in the mid-1980s on the lanes of Belgian Limburg. The author, Jan Stevens, notes that biodiversity was then already under threat. He agrees to take us to spots he researched almost 35 years ago.
In at the edge of a village called Mettekoven, we visit a lane that runs along a large cherry orchard. Like Jansen, Stevens recognizes various plant species: broad-leaved helleborine, wild marjoram. The lanes, he says, became overgrown from a lack of maintenance—and then transitioned to a place to dump trash. “You found fridges, wrecked cars,” he says, “Anything that people couldn’t easily get rid of legally.”
Just as in the Netherlands, early-’80s Belgium also intensified agriculture and other changes allowed fields and pastures to expand. Stevens acknowledges that the outlook is better in some places. “At any rate, it’s not a garbage dump anymore,” he says. Based on his research, Stevens had suggested attracting tourists to the lanes, advice that was heeded: The lane we’re hiking is part of a bike route established by the local tourism bureau.
Stevens takes us along to the Romeinse Kassei—Roman Highway. As the name suggests, it was a road used by the Romans when their empire included these northern reaches. But the ancient lane, which is near Heers, was paved about 15 years ago. With erosion halted by concrete, the lane will flatten out over time, causing the flora and fauna to lose their sheltered spot.
We hike up the Kluisberg, a lane with spectacularly high slopes in the municipality of Halen—terrain that also attracts quite a few motocross riders. In only a few minutes of hiking, we’re startled four times by groups thundering past us. Stevens shakes his head. That isn’t the tourism he intended.
'You feel sheltered'
Many a Limburg village owes its location to a sunken lane, explains Hans Renes, professor emeritus of historical geography. “About the year 1100, for instance, young farmers traveled from the Maas River Valley near Eijsden upward through sunken lanes toward the plateau,” he says. Initially small, the lanes were expanded by settlers felling logs, laying out fields, and founding villages, he adds. Sint Geertruid and Herkenrade, located at a higher elevation, eventually came into existence this way—settlers simply followed the lane up.
The lanes are part of the region’s identity, says Edmond Staal, of the Foundation for the Limburg Landscape. “Like many other Limburgians, I have romantic memories of them,” he says. “You feel sheltered and get the impression of being hugged a bit when you hike through them.”
For more on their value, I seek out Sjeng Jehae, a retired forest ranger, joining him for coffee in his sun-drenched yard, which has a priceless view of the forest outside of Vijelen, in the Netherlands. Jehae hikes the nearby lane often. “A sunken lane isn’t actually all that interesting—a lane is a lane,” he says. “It’s the whole system of lanes, shoulders, puddles, microclimates, and special animals and plants that make it so unbelievably beautiful.”
As we walk, Jehae surveys the area. Wood sorrel, figwort, hedge woundwort—his eyes unerringly spot them in places where I see just a sea of green. “Back then it was even more beautiful,” he says. Still, Jehae also sees bright spots. “Here and there, due to conservation, things are really better for the vegetation than in the mid-1980s,” he says.
But many Limburgians, it seems, take the lanes for granted. I hike out to the orchard at the edge of Sint Geertruid to talk with farmer Mark Martinussen. The apple harvest is in full swing, with 14 workers picking. Martinussen snaps off a large red-green one with a dent in it. “This one is too deformed, so it’ll be made into applesauce or cattle feed,” he says.
He sees the holloways as drainage, no more, no less, he says. “There are a whole lot of rules from the water board that I comply with, but they often change.”
A few weeks later, David Peskens and I are back in Schone Grub, looking for a couple of badger families that usually come out at dusk for food.
The animals have made various paths out of the holloways directly into the adjacent pear and apple orchard. We see relatively fresh droppings. Peskens pokes a stick into one and smells it. “In my opinion, they’ve eaten some fruit,” he says in a whisper, so as not to disturb the badgers. Over the past several years, Peskens has emerged as somewhat of an expert on the holloways. “I’ve discovered yet another beautiful sunken lane,” is a refrain I often hear from him.
Suddenly he stops. Squatting, he points toward a slope about 20 yards away. I have to look carefully, but then I see it—a badger creeping along its beaten path. Then two more. An ecstatic feeling.
It’s well into fall, and I’m back at Schone Grub on a sunny afternoon. Like the photographer, I’ve formed a bond with this special place, and I want to see its rhythms in this season. I meet Freek van Westreenen, who recently retired as an ecologist with the forestry service.
On a four-hour hike around Schone Grub, he sets up a rich timeline. The area has evidence of human activity since prehistoric times, and in 1914 an ancient flint mine was discovered nearby. When I enter the holloway with him, we hear the characteristic screech of a buzzard. Drawn by the presence of rodents, this bird of prey also feels at home in the lanes.
“Each century had its own characteristics in this area,” explains Van Westreenen. “Change was the only constant.” To illustrate that, he shows me a couple of photos of Schone Grub from the end of the 19th century. It’s a world of difference from today. It seems, obviously enough, somewhat more open, less abundantly overgrown. But where the transition from agriculture to the holloway was still gradual in the 1970s, he says, now the separation is a clear line.
“The change is happening unnaturally quickly,” he says. “The fragmentation and isolation of natural areas plays a major role.” And monoculture is lurking in the background, according to Van Westreenen. As an ecologist, he recommends an extensive inventory and genetic study of the native plants and trees before they are lost to further development.
As we part, I take one last look at the holloway higher up. Winter is approaching. The trees are getting bare, but the ivy endures. So much more lives and grows here than I realized back when I first laid eyes on this place.
The Dutch province of Limburg provides subsidies for managing aspects of this landscape to the Forestry Service, among others. The province’s environmental commissioner, Geert Gabriëls, is calling for better protection of the lanes in land-use plans. And he says the key to their preservation over the long term rests with the residents themselves.
“Fortunately, many volunteers have already become members of the pruning brigades,” he says. “And we are developing educational programs to boost awareness and ensure that the knowledge will also be transferred to a new generation.”