Most visitors remember Appelscha by the woods on the outskirts of town, part of National Park the ‘Drents Friese Wold’. Others remember Appelscha from a school excursion or a family outing with walking or cycling trips, where the resting point was the large sandy plains. In the woods is the ”Belvedère” watchtower, an Italian name meaning ‘nice views’. It stands 17 metres high on top of the 27-metre high ”Bosberg”. The view from the Belvedère of the surrounding area lives up to its name.
It was first built in 1903 as a wooden observation post on the Bosberg. Some thirty years later, the Forestry Commission replaced the wood with a metal construction, and in the following decades the tower was to be used as a fire look-out, among other things. As early as in the 1930’s the watchtower has been open to the public until 1994, when it was closed down by the local tourist information office, in charge of the operation at the time. After having been closed for thirteen years, the tower reopened to the public in April 2007 thanks to the efforts of the Appelscha Historic Society.
Within a stone’s throw from the watchtower are the remnants of a former open-air theatre. All that can be seen today is a derelict stone public stand arced around an elevated bare piece of land. But it does not take much of one’s imagination to picture the lively scenes, clapping and cheering crowds, and stage performers who were playing to their heart’s content. Henk Jongsma and Sietze Oldersma are among the many spectators who can remember the things that were organised at this location. Jongsma: ‘We didn’t care what happened on the stage, really. It was the atmosphere down in the woods that mattered. Great!’ The stands were just about overflowing during the performances of well-known radio artists such as Rudie Carell on Tuesday nights, or Swiebertje and other children’s favourites on Wednesday afternoons, or amateur plays on Thursday nights. Popular especially with young lovers were also the movies screened on Saturday nights. The movies could not be screened until dusk had set in. People went home after the movie and returned early the next day for an open-air church service. The peak of these exciting summers was in the 1970’s and the 1980’s. After more than four decades, the final curtain for the theatre fell in 1987.
Nature Conservation Act demands compliance
Oldersma cannot hide his enthusiasm when he talks about the renovation plans with an elevated stage, metal stands for an audience of 500, and two covered-up sea containers serving as control and dressing rooms. But for now these plans are just on paper as we are faced with a lot of red tape before we can put a spade into the ground. ‘It works like a monopoly board game. Just when you’re about to buy in Oxford Street, you are knocked back and sent to jail. ’ Since the Bosberg and the surrounding forest areas are part of a National Park, any plans for recreational facilities at this location must comply with the Bird and Habitat Directive, as well as with the Nature Conservation Act. Access to the watchtower has now been restored after compliance with the various rules and regulations. However, the consent procedure for re-establishing the open-air theatre is still ongoing. That is the reason why the renovation plans have been put on ice while time is running out. Renovation of the open-air theatre will take two months, while the decision for the European subsidy will expire this coming July. Henk and Sietze find it a nail-biting experience. In 2002, when the application for a subsidy was made, they could not foresee the requirements under the Nature Conservation Act in this form. Vronie Bootsma, LEADER coordinator of the Drenthe/Frisian LEADER region, hopes the society will be allowed extra time, but more than one or two months would be unlikely. ‘However’, says Vronie, ‘if we happen to be unsuccessful in the current LEADER period, other subsidies will be made available in the future. It would mean another application though; perhaps also having to meet different criteria, but in any case extra work and therefore extra time.’
The third project undertaken by the HVA is the detention building in the town centre on the Vaart Zuidzijde. The Council has given this lockup to the Appelscha Historic Society with the idea of turning the building into a cultural-historical attraction. In the 1920’s a detention building containing two prison cells was constructed at the back of what used to be a fire brigade shelter containing a small manual pump. Oldersma: ‘A few doors away was the Appelscha boarding house where parties were often held lasting into the small hours of the night. Perhaps it was not such a bad idea building the lockup at this location. The lockup came in handy to sober up out-of-control partygoers.’ The society has restored the two rooms (men and women were separated, of course) into their original state and public access has been granted since December 2006. A key exhibition called ‘Under lock and key’ is held at the front of the lockup. Former locksmith Joop Toller has used his knowledge and his key collection to turn it into a very special attraction.
More tourists to Appelscha
In 2002 it all started with a hand-written request to the LEADER coordinator. This led to an orientation on site with Vronie Bootsma in developing ideas for the plans, for which feasibility and support are important ingredients. In consultation with the municipality of Ooststellingwerf and the province of Friesland, this resulted in the proposal for a project in the end. Vronie says she had good feelings right from the start. ‘A society with so many passionate volunteers: something good was bound to happen.’
The set-up of the three projects proved the huge support from the community in Appelscha. Various organisations, including the Appelscha Tourist Information Office, the municipality of Ooststellingwerf, the Forestry Commission and the Historic Society jointly came to the conclusion that the local economy needed a shot in the arm. The tourist numbers were in decline, although Appelscha and its areas of natural beauty have so much to offer. They all agreed that the watchtower, the open-air theatre and the lockup would contribute to an upgrade. In view of the size of the Historic Society with almost 900 members, many of them being active volunteers, they were given the pioneering role for the three projects. These recreational facilities and other tourist attractions are to strengthen the Appelscha economy. A wider target group will now be catered for. Chairman Jongsma: ‘In plain language, this is for the average citizen, for people who bring their own coffee and sandwiches. What we’d like to set up is more versatility, cultural-historical recreation that will give tourism levels a new impulse.’ Visitors already came for walking and cycling, but they may now make Appelscha their travel destination. They may not only climb the watchtower and visit the lockup, but also take a look at other tourist attractions in Appelscha. Henk Jongsma believes these new tourist opportunities will attract more hotels and restaurants in the area, resulting in extra jobs, one of the objectives of the LEADER programme.
According to Vronie, these projects are a good example of what Europe meant with the introduction of the subsidy scheme. ‘It’s about small-scale rural projects giving an impulse to tourism. The projects have come from within the community, bottom-up, as we like to see it.’ But outstanding natural areas are subject to rules and regulations, of course. Oldersma: ‘We like people to enjoy this beautiful natural reserve, but we need to comply with legislation pertaining to conservation issues.’ According to Jongsma it will all sort itself out. ‘People visit the area to enjoy nature. What we want is to give them just that little bit extra that makes their stay in Appelscha special.’ In the meantime, the visitor numbers to Belvedère and the lockup are up and we see more and more initiatives to make a stay in Appelscha worthwhile. The realisation of the open-air theatre will give it an extra boost. The push of the LEADER subsidy has done its job.