Cycling around the restored Utrecht moat

The restored Utrecht city moat will be officially opened this Saturday. Unfortunately with little fanfare due to the Corona crisis, but this historic event – the removal of the city motorway and the complete return of the original canal ring – is huge in Utrecht even without official events. The last scoops of dirt were taken out on Friday 4 September. The entire process took well over twenty years, from the decision to build the first trial part that was opened in 2001/2002, to this final opening of the third and last part. It was a very long wait for anyone in Utrecht and beyond. I had written about the opening of the second part late 2015, I will devote two posts to the current opening!

billet en français

The Willemsplantsoen (left) has been restored in line with the style of the rest of the park from the 1830s. When more trees will be planted here and the grass grows back you won’t be able to tell that a motorway once ran here. The buildings weren’t replaced here so this scar will heal completely.
The same location in 2009 from the city motorway that was closed soon after. Google Streetview.
This is where I start my ride. The place where the water (right) stopped from the early 1970s to 2020. The treeline (right of the road) was interrupted here to let the road move to the right, to the location of the former water. (picture Google Streetview)
At the same location today, you can still see that the kerb (curb) took a turn to the right here, but the road has been straightened and the tree line has been restored with adult trees from elsewhere. The road will be reconstructed soon, at the end of this year.

From the many before and after pictures I posted on Twitter you can see that I followed the process with great interest. Documenting change in Utrecht is a passion I developed in my late teens. I had found old slides taken by my father in 1970, which show how a large part of the Utrecht canal ring was closed. I went back in 1984 to take my own slides at the same locations. That led to taking pictures of the changes in the city, in the second half of the 1980s, also around the road that had been in place for about 15 years at the time.

In 1970, the canal was closed at this location at Weerdsingel-Westzijde. My father documented the activities. (photo: Walter Wagenbuur)
In 1984, I went back to the same location and photographed the parking lot that came in the place of the water. This was the trial part that returned in 2001/2002 after which the people of Utrecht voted to let the whole canal ring return in a referendum in 2002.
Weerdsingel-Westzijde with the replacement Monica bridge (2001) and trees that have fully developed after being here for almost 20 years. You really have to know this is a reconstruction, you couldn’t tell from how it looks alone. (Picture Google Streetview)

In this opening week, and now that the water is complete, I decided to cycle all around the full canal ring to show you what that is like. I cycled the route clockwise, starting at the location where the road once started. The part alongside the former road now has buildings in a scale you won’t find at the parts where the canal was never closed. This change in the type of buildings continued well into the 1980s as my own pictures in this post show. Due to those larger buildings these streets will remain to look different in the future. But this part was never a park, it was always the more industrial part of the canal ring, with also the city port. The street designs directly around the historic city moat are of very different types too, ranging from what could well be Utrecht’s narrowest on-street cycle lane on a short part of Catharijnesingel to beautifully separated and protected cycleways with smooth red asphalt on Daalsesingel. In earlier blog posts I showed you the redesign of the Maliesingel and the Tolsteegsingel. The streets around the historic moat have different street names, referring to the neighbourhood in which that part of the moat is, but they all end with “singel”. It will be no surprise that “singel” is the Dutch word for “moat”. For my many non-native English speaking followers ‘moat’ will be an unfamiliar word. This is what it means:

moat [ moht ] noun

a deep, wide trench, usually filled with water, surrounding the rampart of a fortified place, as a town or a castle.

Utrecht was a walled city for many centuries. The people in Utrecht had started to dig the moat even before the year 1122, when Utrecht was granted city rights. In fact, two rivers (one in the north and one in the south, both flowing east-west) were connected by two almost parallel canals from north to south. The canals were dug by hand, but the dirt that was taken out didn’t go far. It was used to form the ramparts. Today the Kromme Rijn (‘crooked Rhine’) still ends in the south end of the city moat. Another river, the Vecht, originates at the north end and flows further north in the direction of Amsterdam. This means that also this newly opened canal ring has flowing river water and it will be navigable. From the early 1600s, Utrecht’s city walls slowly decayed and they were taken down from 1830 to 1872. The former fortifications were turned into a linear park, an English style landscape park. Most of that park still exists today, because only the industrial part of the moat was allowed to be closed. At one location (Willemsplantsoen) part of the lost park returns and it was designed to match the 1830 landscape design of the rest of the former ramparts.

Daalsesingel February 1984. I took this picture because I knew these buildings (very similar to what you still find today around the rest of the canal ring) were going to make way for a modern office block. In the foreground the then about 12 year old road that came in the place of the water.
By February 1985 the buildings had been demolished.
Late Summer 1985 the building was starting to take shape. You can see how much bigger in scale it is compared to the buildings it replaced.
Spring 1986 the office block with mirror glazing was finished.
In 2020, the building is still there but the road in front of it had become water again in 2015. At this location the canal was filled in from 1968. (Picture Google Streetview)

In the video I mention all the street names and I name and date every bridge you pass (roughly the year when it was last renewed; some of those bridges have existed for centuries longer). The first bridge in the video – and the last to be finished – is the Marga Klompé bridge. So named after the first female cabinet minister in the Netherlands. In 1966, she took a decision which prevented the full loss of the Utrecht city moat, by partly making it a protected national monument.

In 1970, my father took this picture when the buildings of Jaarbeurs (convention centre) at Vredenburg were demolished and the Dom tower became visible. In the foreground the water of the canal ring that would disappear right around that time. (Photo: Walter Wagenbuur)
In 1984, I took a picture at the same location with the city motorway in the foreground after the buildings of the mall and the city’s music theatre had been finished. The winter light makes the situation look even more dreary.
The OpenStreetMap has already been updated. I indicated when the different parts of the water were finished. The rest was never touched. That part of the moat was dug in the 12th century. (North is left, I turned this map to make it the same as the historic map below)
I could have taken this route in 1695 as well. At that time the ramparts, the bastions, the moat and the road around it had evolved into the shape they have again today. The single bastion on the west-side (bottom here) had been removed to straighten the road. (North is left, this was customary then. Map Utrechts Archief.)

Enjoy the ride!

Ride around the restored Utrecht canal ring.

4 thoughts on “Cycling around the restored Utrecht moat

  1. There are some times where cars get dreadfully close to you, and even drive in the red bicycle lane (12:40). Thank you for the map. I was able to follow you on your entire ride. Such a wonderful video!

    1. That is not a bicycle lane, only a fietsstrook with a dashed line which can be used by cars as long as they do not get in the way of cyclists.

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