Book review by Steve Matthews of Bookends.
The Debatable Land: The Lost World Between Scotland and England by graham Robb. Picador. £20.
Few books begin standing in front of Carlisle railway station. It’s an autumn evening in 2010 and Graham Robb and his wife Margaret are standing there in Court Square with two heavily loaded bicycles faced with a journey into the Debatable Land. They’ve left Oxford and the South behind and they are gearing themselves up for a journey into the Borders.
It was a Saturday night. Botchergate might have offered “a reasonable chance of witnessing some inter-tribal violence”. The County Hotel stared across at them “with its flaking facade from the other side of a car-clogged square, beyond the iron railings of a disaffected public toilet.”
The twenty mile ride they made the following morning to a lonely cottage on the English side of the Border was just the beginning of a longer, more richly visualized journey into the history of the Debatable Land.
As they climbed inland from Longtown, the countryside “proclaimed its ancient identities”. Their house, an isolated house by the river, which had been known by Romany and been owned by Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet minister Nicholas Ridley, resonated to a “sound like an endless downpour” made by the cataracts of the River Liddel.
The land Graham came to know measures only thirteen miles long by eight-and -a-half at its widest. It is a place where “paths stretch far back in time”. A place where, reading and riding, he will come to sense the remnants of an older civilization.
He found it in the people. Wattie Blakey, the mole-catcher, “a hunched figure in a red bandanna” with seventy years experience of ridding fields throughout the Borders of the mouldywarp. Wattie performed his “gipsy rites”, travelling by bus, including the faithful old 127, and then completing his journey to a lonely farm on one of the seven trusty and rusty old bikes he had strategically stationed round the valley.
It may have been a land famous for the Reivers, men such as the six who broke into a house at Caldbeck who made a man called Sowerby sit with his bare buttocks on a hot iron until he gave them the £4 he had in to house. But it was also a peculiarly peaceful area where Robert Carey, the Warden of the Middle March, could report to Queen Elizabeth that, outside the reiving season, it was an area of “great quiet and little or no stealing”.
It was also an area where the Elizabethan geographer John Leland had reported seeing great rings and staples in ancient walls at Netherby as though they had been staples and holds for ships. Netherby had once been the Roman Castra Exploratorum from which the Imperial army had controlled the Solway.
And Ptolemy’s distorted map, when adjusted, revealed “the intellectual treasure of a maligned civilization” in the region of Lancashire, Yorkshire and Cumbria. And with other evidence it pointed to a “Roman Arthur”, to a Celtic race “given the gift of civilization by a Roman army”.
Graham Robb’s journey into the Debatable Land has been an intriguing one. He explores the intimacy of place, its people and its past, and challenges the complacencies of the received history. For him the history continues in the ever-present life of the Debatable Land where he has elected to live. He rides the bus, the 127. He cycles the roads and the lanes and he reads the land and its complex history with a rare sensitivity.