In 2010, historian and author Graham Robb and his wife found themselves at the railway station in Carlisle, in the far northwest part of England near the Scottish border. They had just purchased a house in the area. But the move didn’t herald long, exploratory car trips. Instead, the couple brought only their bicycles.
On their journeys, they meet people like Wattie Blakey, an elderly mole catcher, just one of the many characters—some from history—who spring to life in Robb’s new book about a desolate border tract known as the Debatable Land, the oldest territorial division in Great Britain.
While the Debatable Land itself is only 13 miles long, the region is a site of legend, conflicts, battles and mystery. In digging up its history, Robb covers a large swath of time. But in true cyclist fashion, the telling is not rushed but leisurely: The author stops to show us points of interest and sights along the way. We learn about the terrain, the wind and the seasons as we accompany Robb on research trips by bicycle, or even as he passes a band of Scottish sheep while scrunching through the snow to his mailbox. This intimate portrait of the land helps us imagine its colorful past of rebellious clans and border raiders.
In this way, readers become part of this erudite historian’s own process of discovery. Robb doesn’t end his exploration in the distant past. Instead, he ventures into the 21st century, when the Brexit vote has raised the possibility of a new referendum on Scottish independence. For Anglophiles, history lovers and, yes, cyclists, The Debatable Land is a journey worth taking.