Treasures of the North 4
Manor houses used to be reinforced towers
The prettiest estate in Groningen? As far as Willemieke Ottens is concerned, that’s de Fraeylemaborg near Slochteren, construction on which started before the year 1300. Back then, it was a stins or stone house: a stone tower surrounded by a moat where rich noblemen could hide during a time ‘when there was a lot of fighting over land’.
More than seven hundred years later, the manor near Slochteren has been transformed into a romantic country house with a moat that reflects the sky and extensive gardens. ‘It’s really just a small property’, says Ottens, who studies estate houses in general and their gardens in particular. ‘But it looks much larger. It’s like you stepped inside a fairy tale.’
Lady of the house
The entire estate consists of the manor house itself, still decorated in the style of Louise Groenveld Thomassen à Thuessink van der Hoop van Slochteren, ‘the last lady of the house in Groningen’, when she lived there with her family until 1971, when maintaining the house became too expensive.
All the different levels, the ponds, the multi-way bridge; the garden is very special
Then there are the outbuildings, which have been beautifully preserved: the stables, which now houses a restaurant, the coach house, and the orangery.
But as far as Ottens is concerned, the gardens are the most beautiful by far. They were partially designed by famous nineteenth-century landscape architect Roodbaard. ‘The perspectives in the gardens are just really good’, she says. ‘Then there’s the Flora statue, the Roman goddess of spring, which you can see from every single angle. You might think it’s gigantic, but it isn’t. But it’s also all the different levels, the ponds, the multi-way bridge. It’s honestly very special.
Estates in Groningen
Of the nearly two hundred estates there once were in Groningen, only sixteen are left. Four of them are open to the public, including the Fraeylemaborg near Slochteren. It’s an hour away by bike, half an hour by car, and perfectly accessible by bus.
In Uithuizen, you’ll find the Menkemaborg. Here, the eighteenth-century geometric gardens have been preserved. You’ll also find flowers and plants from two hundred years ago.
The Borg Verhildersum museum near Leens tells the story of nineteenth-century nobility, farmers, and agricultural labourers. You can visit the museum between April and November, but the gardens are open all year.
Finally, there’s the Nienoord estate near Leek. Out of the four estates open to the public, Nienoord is the only one that didn’t start out as a stone house; instead, it was a peat house, serving as the base of operations for the cultivation of the peatlands. Now, it houses the National Carriage Museum.
The Fraeylemaborg is one of sixteen estates or strongholds that managed to survive until the twenty-first century. But there used to be more than two hundred, all over the province of Groningen. There are also still a few left in Friesland, although they call them stinzen, and there are also some in Germany. ‘It’s kind of weird’, says Ottens, ‘that our research usually ends at the border. But it wasn’t like that in the past. People had a lot of contact with others and families would intermarry all the time.’
Sure, the estates aren’t huge like the Muiderslot of Loevestein in the west of the Netherlands, or Castle Ammersoyen in the province of Gelderland. But what they lack in size, they make up for in quantity. That’s partially due to past political circumstances, Ottens thinks. The dukes of Gelre were powerful rulers who occupied a central seat, while the north of the country was more decentralised, divided among ‘smaller’ rules.
For hundreds of years, these manors were the centre of the community. For centuries, the people who ruled the region resided in them. They were a place where people could hide from the violence of battles and they employed people, either at the estate itself or, more commonly, as tenants of one of the farms that were part of the estate. The estate houses also served as a reference point in the landscape.
Wealth and power
Over time, the estate houses have changed a lot. The fortified towers from the Middle Ages have almost all disappeared. ‘All that’s left is the Schierstins in Veenwouden’, says Ottens. ‘There’s also one in the German region of Bunde.’
After the disappearance of the manors’ defensive function – the stone towers were no match for the sixteenth and seventeenth-century cannons – they slowly transformed into luxury houses that reflected their inhabitants’ wealth and power. ‘Especially in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the owners commissioned beautiful parks for their houses’, says Ottens. ‘They usually also owned a house in the city.’
But as history shows, it’s never been easy to maintain such a large house and its surrounding estate. Numerous houses were sold or torn down once the owners could no longer afford the upkeep.
Take Henric Piccardt, for instance, the man after whom the Piccardthof was named; he bought the Fraeylemaborg in 1690 from his brother-in-law Evert Rengers, who had racked up heavy debts. Piccardt had a close relationship with William III, who lent him the money to buy the house. ‘He had great ambitions for the estate’, says Ottens. ‘He had the gardens laid out in a geometric French style, just like at Versailles.’
No wonder, since Piccardt studied in France, spent years at the French court, and even became a gentleman in waiting to French king Louis XIV.
But when Piccardt’s descendants suffered financial misfortune, they neglected the estate until it was sold to Hendrik de Sandra Veldtman, a politician. He had the gardens changed to reflect the English country-house style they still are today. The only remnant of the old style is the kilometre-long lane that points directly to the house’s centre.
Ottens loves the new style of the gardens. She loves the multi-way bridge, the meandering paths, the lush ponds, the follies – fake buildings that were particularly popular during the nineteenth century – and the ‘high hill’. ‘Honestly, it’s pretty high’, she says. ‘Imagine the work it took to construct it. How many men had to keep walking their wheelbarrows with dirt up there. Once you’re at the top, it’s a great view of the surroundings. At one time, you could see the Slochteren church tower.’
Hiring Roodbaard showed you had a certain standing
The back part of the garden was designed around 1840 by Lucas Pieters Roodbaard, the pre-eminent landscape architect for Groningen and Frisian nobility. ‘Hiring him showed that you had standing, that you were aware of the latest trends.’
At the start of the twentieth century there was another round of estate houses being torn down. This was mainly due to the high inheritance tax, says Ottens. But even though an estate might be worth a lot on paper, that doesn’t mean the owners have that much money in their bank accounts. ‘I can imagine people inheriting the place from their parents and wondering what the hell they’re supposed to do with it.’
Speculators became interested in the manors – mostly for the woods surrounding them – as well as in other estates in the Netherlands. ‘The estate houses were often sold to be torn down’, says Ottens. ‘Or their function changed from estate to a regular residence or farm.’
Open to the public
This was also the time that the Dutch Preservation Society was founded, to buy up places to preserve their natural state. ‘In the end, the government decided to lower the inheritance tax if the parks were made available to the public.’
The Fraeylemaborg remained private property for a long time, but by 1971, it had become too expensive to live on the estate. The household effects were sold and by 1972, the estate belonged to the Gerrit van Houten Foundation, which maintains the house and runs a museum out of it.
It’s a beautiful location, says Ottens, where people can get in touch with the history in these places. ‘Estates can tell you all about power structures and represent the cultural, architectural, art historical and landscape values of the times’, she says. ‘On top of that, they’re just exceptionally lovely places to visit.’