1 Ice and water

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Not many towns or cities in the Netherlands can be said to rise above their surroundings, but Nijmegen is an exception and the city owes its elevated position to its icy past.

D.A. van de Wart, To the South East (1806) View of the bare lateral moraine from the Belvédère (MHV)
D.A. van de Wart, To the South East (1806) View of the bare lateral moraine from the Belvédère (MHV)

During the Saalian stage of the Pleistocene epoch, glaciers pushed south from Scandinavia to the area we now know as the Netherlands. Ice masses with an estimated thickness of 650 feet pushed up the ground in front of them. This is how the Utrecht and Nijmegen-Kleef Hill Ridges and the Veluwe were created.

The highest point of the lateral moraine (325 feet) is situated in the Rijk van Nijmegen near Groesbeek. The majority of Nijmegen is not located on the actual moraine, but on a fan shaped deposit of sand and gravel from melt water flowing off the moraine. The alluvium gradually slopes from the Kops Plateau down to the west. The relatively flat and high position, on top of the steep ridge alongside a river, gave the Kops Plateau and the nearby Hunnerberg a strategic position. Many millennia later the Romans found these locations ideal for setting up camp.

The last glacial period, approximately twelve thousand years ago, also helped shape Nijmegen’s landscape. The ice did not reach as far as this, but particularly at the end of the period the wind had free reign across the bare soil. As a result the lower part of the alluvium was covered with a layer of drift sand or loess. Most melt water valleys were formed during the last ice age; Hengst valley being the finest example of this.

The history of the river Waal started at the end of the last ice age. The melt water that forced its way from the German region to the North Sea formed a wide, bare plain between Arnhem and Nijmegen. This plain was a mishmash of watercourses, which mainly deposited coarse sand, gravel and stones. With the passage of time this braided river channel changed into a meandering river channel with less strong currents. Over five thousand years ago a wide river belt carrying the water in a north westerly direction towards the coast formed in front of the Nijmegen moraine. This large watercourse, which also cut through the Waalsprong area, stayed intact for almost three millennia. The precursor of today’s rivers Nederrijn and Waal originated about four thousand years ago.

Thanks to the river, the Nijmegen area became a Roman legion camp, a civic centre, a prospering trading place and a fortified town. The Roman historian Tacitus had no doubt that the Waal was the widest river in the region, as it still is today.

Source: Peter van den Broeke and Mieke Smit, in: De Canon van Nijmegen, Uitgeverij Vantilt (Nijmegen 2009)

>> Back to the overview page of the Concise history of Nijmegen