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Visiting Het Zwin Nature Reserve, Belgium: borderland tranquillity recalling a tumultuous Medieval past

Updated on May 13, 2013
Flag of Belgium
Flag of Belgium | Source
Het Zwin reserve
Het Zwin reserve | Source
Battle of Sluis, 1340
Battle of Sluis, 1340 | Source
Map location of Knokke-Heist, West Flanders
Map location of Knokke-Heist, West Flanders | Source

A major attraction at Knokke-Heist

Close to the border with The Netherlands, in the West Flanders (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen) province of Belgium's Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams gewest) lies the 158 hectare nature reserve known as Het Zwin, or The Zwin (1). This was created in 1952. Noted flora and fauna include sea lavender and white storks; the reserve is unquestionably popular with ornithologists.

Before 1952, the term the Zwin usually referred only to an estuary which had progressively been silting up since Medieval times.

Two important events stand out in the Medieval past of the Zwin. In 1134, a storm caused the North Sea (Dutch: Noordzee) to break through along this watercourse, and this had the effect of making the city of Bruges (Dutch: Brugge) a port city, greatly enhancing its trade and prosperity.

Then in 1340 — on June 12, to be precise — an attack was carried out by English vessels, and the effect of this attack was that a French fleet was sunk. This event is known as the Battle of Sluis (Dutch: Slag bij Sluis)(2). Interestingly, Sluis is now over the border in The Netherlands. So, you have heard of the term 'The Cockpit of Europe', referring to what is now Belgium? This is in reference to the fact that historically other countries have used what is now Belgium to pursue their wars against each other. Thus it was that this Medieval battle is named for a town now in The Netherlands, where English raiders destroyed a French fleet: an early instance of this Cockpit of Europe syndrome already occurring: and all because the Zwin was in Medieval times still navigable several kilometres inland.

Previously, a comparable event had occurred on May 30 and 31, 1213, when, during what is known as the Battle of Damme, a French fleet was destroyed by English raiders. Nearby Damme was in the Middle Ages a prosperous town to which the Zwin was navigable.

But still in Medieval times, the Zwin began to silt up of its own accord. What had for a number of years been a significant trade route of military importance, reverted to a quiet and even desolate coastal hinterland, populated mainly by birds.

The nature reserve extends across the Dutch border, but the part which lies within Belgium is in the municipality of Knokke-Heist, in Belgium's Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams gewest).

March 11, 2013


(1) This was also formerly written 'Zwyn'.

(2) This battle was one of the early events of the Hundred Years' War. 'Sluis' is also sometimes written 'Sluys', especially in historical accounts.

Also worth seeing

In Knokke-Heist itself, a sought after resort on the Belgian coast, vistor attractions include many art galleries, the Schaarpoort concert hall and the Sincfala museum, in Heist; a mainly modern town, it also possesses some old church architecture.

Bruges (Dutch: Brugge; distance: 18 kilometres) is a fine city of Medieval churches, civic buildings and canals, hugely popular with visitors.

Sluis, The Netherlands (distance: 9.5 kilometres) is a picturesque, Dutch canal town in an area known as Zeeland Flanders (Dutch: Zeeuws Vlaanderen).


How to get there: Brussels National Airport (Brussel-Nationaal-Luchthaven), Belgium, where car hire is available, is the nearest large international airport to Knokke-Heist (distance: 131 kilometres).Brussels Airlines flies from New York (JFK) to Brussels National. The Belgian NMBS / SNCB railroad company maintains services between Brussels and Knokke. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent. Travellers are advised that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. Please refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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