Robb has a good eye for the small and seemingly ordinary things that convey a sense of remoteness —of place and time ... Robb intercuts the past and present, the intimate and the impersonal, to wonderful effect. Few authors write so well about things lost and neglected—or have such sharp ears and eyes for the natural world.
Graham Robb’s book offers the story of the Debatable Land, but at the same time it’s the account of his own explorations and reflections there ... Robb—a graceful and imaginative writer—describes vividly the frozen rivers, the flash floods, the cruel winds, and the general hardiness required of the traveler ... [Robb's book is] luminously observant...introspective...rich with anecdotes and scholarly reading ... But when it comes to politics...less convincing ... The final part of Graham Robb’s book is less accessible ... Toward the end of The Debatable Land, Robb wheels off into ingenious but perilously high-wire historical speculations ... His enthusiasm and his delight in his own wide-reaching research are likable. But there’s something of Jeddart justice in his handling of historical evidence: hoist the conclusion first and then select any data that back it up. In the same way, his vision of the Debatable Land as a melting pot in which Scots and English could become a single people doesn’t reflect the gathering flow of nationality politics in both countries.
No one can say Robb is not brave ... The border lands were my home for a while; he catches their introversion beautifully ... I am inclined to indulge him his kite flying about the wretched Celts. He has earned the romance. His skill as a writer is to understand, without being fey, the fourth dimension: peeling back the modern landscape to find buried stories and forgotten paths, metaphors for life. He has the ability to bring alive quirk and coincidence—although sometimes too much—in the resonance of place and time.
Like many a rural expedition, The Debatable Land has an engaging beginning, a stodgy middle in which we get bogged down and briefly lost, and a clearsighted finale. Few travel books focus on such a compressed region—the Debatable Land measures about 13 miles from tip to tip—and offer the reader so little personal feeling. I got more sense of Mr. Robb the explorer from his tracking of Rimbaud [in his previous book] than from The Debatable Land. His wife, having moved into the house, effectively disappears from the story. Locals surface from rain- and windswept fields to offer morsels of wisdom but are allowed to pass on without introduction. Mr. Robb’s companions are his theories, his bicycle, his books and his maps.
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 ... This intimate portrait of the land helps us imagine its colorful past of rebellious clans and border raiders ... For Anglophiles, history lovers and, yes, cyclists, The Debatable Land is a journey worth taking.
As a coherent volume, it doesn’t work. Reportage and travel writing flit and whizz among dense historical passages, which are not safely chronological. The overall structure eluded this reader. Essential diagrams are stuck right at the back, away from the text. Yet it’s a book worth reading because it fails far more interestingly than many successful books succeed ... It all seems vaguely plausible, but in general, it is a safe rule that any theory which includes the word “Arthur” is to be approached with a long stick and a peg on the nose ... This volume is, as I say, deeply strange. But it contains several glories, much fine writing and the odd (very odd) wonder.
Robb gets about his new patch by foot, bus, and bike, thus gets a close look at the lay of the land, for which he has a keen sense of mood. This is a shadowy, rain-soaked land, just right for the horrible acts that did take place on what by all means should have been a peaceable ground, that is until it was decided to set the bounds formally and that usually is the cause of strife. But it is also a handsome place, full of unexpected beauty that Robb exploits neatly ... The land is still there, though the Debatable is long gone. Still, Robb coaxes it back into being for us to marvel.
Focusing on this one remarkable region, Robb’s two-wheeled perspective and highly observant eye allow him to ruminate through the Celtic, medieval, and present eras with ease; readers are lucky to join him on his enthralling journey.
[Robb] uses his vast knowledge of Celtic history, languages, and geography to create a fascinating book of history and adventure ... An imagination-stimulating work in which the past seems 'to dissolve and reshape itself.'