Millican Dalton Was the Chain-Smoking, Cave-Dwelling Godfather of Ultralight Camping

Millican Dalton knew how to make an impression. When a correspondent from the Sunday Chronicle newspaper came calling in 1933, the self-styled “Professor of Adventure” gave the interview from the lower branches of a beech tree. He was 66 years old and clad, as always, in hand-sewn shorts, puttees and a feathered Tyrolean hat, with a Scotch plaid draped over his shoulders and a cigarette burning between unruly whiskers. He had spent much of the previous decade living in a cave.

“Forty years ago I was working as a clerk in a city office,” Millican told the newspaperman, “but this was not the life for me. I gave up my job in the commercial world and set out to seek romance and freedom.”

Millican spent the rest of his life living largely out-of-doors, wintering in a forest hut in Essex, and spending his summers in the Lake District, where he launched a second career as England’s most eccentric mountain guide. He posed for postcards and posted advertising his services, promising not only camping and guided climbs, but also “mountain rapid shooting, rafting and hairbreadth escapes” at a time when contemporary guides were leading hill walks.

He outfitted himself and his clients in lightweight gear he designed and sewed himself, specializing in tents made of tightly woven Egyptian cotton. In the rain the fibers would swell, tightening the weave and rendering the shelter water resistant, if not exactly dry. He sold handmade rucksacks, advertising them as “half the weight and one-third the cost” of the Norwegian packs in vogue at the time.

Millican did most of his sewing in the winter, when not climbing trees or, weather permitting, skimming across icy ponds on handmade wooden skates or sliding through the forest on skis—a skill he acquired in the Alps before the First World War. His handmade clothes were habitually left un-finished as frayed testimony that in Millican’s eyes, hemmed shorts should never stand in the way of a good ramble.

Millican Dalton was born near the Lake District in 1867, the sixth of seven children. His father died when he was seven, and at 13 the family moved south, first to London and then on to Essex in the south of England. They lived in a Victorian house with a turret at one corner, where Millican’s bedroom was situated. That bedroom window, when combined with a length of Manila rope, offered access to all manner of boyhood adventures.

Millican and his brothers Joseph and Henry became adept at “boling,” traversing and ascending large oak or beech trees, whose great trunks and coarse bark offered cracks, chimneys and cols, providing excellent substitutes for rock faces, according to Millican’s biographer, Matthew Entwistle.

The brothers soon progressed to camping—a novel pastime in the 1880s—then evolved a primitive form of bike-packing. They tramped across England and Wales and as far north as Scotland with bicycles so overloaded with gear they sometimes couldn’t ride them. In Entwistle’s telling, they used the bikes like porter’s pushcarts to carry vast weights of blankets and heavy canvas tents deep into the hills. The brothers called this “pass-storming,” and generally kept at it until nightfall, pitching their Spartan camps in total darkness.

These trips naturally involved climbing, and Millican found that the boling skills he’d honed in the forests of Essex transferred readily to the rock. In the next decades he became formidable climber and made a number of significant first ascents, including Pencoed Pillar in North Wales and the Dove’s Nest in the Lake District, which he visited at every opportunity. Yet despite these weekend and holiday adventures, Millican remained a young Victorian gentleman five days a week. He had followed his brother Joseph into the insurance trade, working in the City of London for nearly 20 years until, at the age of 36, he could stand it no longer.

He told the Union Assurance Company (Fire & Life) what to do with their job, and lived the rest of his days on his own terms and almost entirely outdoors. Camping, he once wrote, “provides the completest possible change from ordinary civilised town existence; and, being the healthiest kind of life, as well as the jolliest and most unconventional, is the best antidote to the rush and stress of city work.”

Though a strict minimalist in his personal life, Millican kept an inventory of his homemade camping equipment to rent out to clients, so that the cost of an outfit wouldn’t be a barrier to adventure. He wanted everyone to experience the out-of-doors, including—somewhat scandalously at the time—women.

“When we climbed together, it was rather a shock that I was expected as a matter of course to take the lead,” wrote his friend and client Mabel Barker. On their first roped climb together, Millican took Barker up Napes Needle, an iconic Lake District spire. Barker later became the first woman to climb the Central Butress on Scafell Crag, the hardest route in the Lake District at the time, and was the first to traverse Cullin Ridge on the Isle of Skye.

Millican didn’t see any reason why Barker or other women shouldn’t climb hard rock, or otherwise do as they pleased. That was only one of his unorthodox beliefs, all of which he espoused freely. He relished a good argument, and though he was sometimes called him the “Borrowdale Hermit” he was as sociable as he was opinionated. He welcomed visitors, occasionally leaving handwritten invitations to take tea with him at “Sinbad’s Cave.” Those who obliged would often be goaded into political discussions, which Millican pursued with gusto. He was a socialist and an outspoken pacifist who once wrote Winston Churchill during the height of the Blitz, demanding the Prime Minister make peace with the Germans. It seems the local air raid warden had climbed up to the cave to demand Millican douse his fire, infringing the Caveman’s liberty and provoking his ire.

Millican was less dogmatic on the subject of eating and drinking. Though an avowed teetotaler and lifelong vegetarian, he wasn’t above boiling a chicken in his Billycan for clients or guests. He had his own vices, chiefly strong coffee and Woodbine cigarettes, which he smoked incessantly. “All strenuous activities would be undertaken with a cigarette in his mouth . . . and he would consume each smoke as though inhaling oxygen,” Entwistle wrote in his biography, Millican Dalton: A Search for Romance and Freedom. Every few days Millican would drop by the Borrowdale Hotel to renew his supply of Woodbines, making quite the impression standing in the wood-paneled bar in his hand-stitched Tyrolean getup amid the well-heeled guests in their formalwear.

For years he spent summers in a tent or bivouacked wherever darkness found him, but in the 1920’s he moved into a large cave on the eastern slope of Castle Crag near Borrowdale. It was a split-level affair left over from an abandoned slate-mining operation. Millican took up residence in the upper cavern, which he dubbed the attic. He took pleasure in naming things. His camps in the south were “Esperanca” and “High Heaven,” and he called his summer residence the “Cave Hotel.”

He styled himself the Professor of Adventure, but also Robin Hood, Robinson Caruso, Rob Roy and Sinbad. When the novelist Hugh Walpole based a character on him—“He was a man with a thin dry face, long shaggy black hair, a coat and breeches of some colour that had faded into a dirty green. He looked like part of the fell”—Millican promptly named a makeshift raft Rogue Herries, after the book’s title, and arranged to be photographed in it.

When a newspaperman visited the cave in January 1941, Millican once again made an impression.

“Mr. Dalton is 73-1/2 years of age, is tall, spare, hard as a fell toad and if you were to meet him you would agree that in his Tyrolese hat, decorated by a heron’s plume, his plaid drawn over a brown tweed coat, his green corduroy shorts, sinewy legs, sometimes encased in puttees and climbing boots, he looks a fine figure of a man,” wrote the correspondent for the Whitehaven News.

Because of the war, Millican had decided to over-winter in the cave for the first time, and the reporter’s visit coincided with the coldest day of the year. Icicles hung like a curtain across the mouth of the cave. Inside Millican sat stirring his porridge, clad as ever in his unhemmed shorts, the omnipresent Woodbine tucked between his bare toes “so that the tobacco ash may not drop into the breakfast.” Millican looked thoroughly refreshed after a night under his plaid and an eiderdown quilt.

“It’s the only kind of life worth living,” he told the writer, who then asked how he passed the long nights under the wartime blackout, without even a glimmer of candlelight. After a beat the Borrowdale Hermit responded. “Well, I don’t sleep much, and while I am awake I lie and listen and think. There’s a lot to think about just now isn’t there? All the sounds of the night, the roar of the mountain stream, the barking of cur dogs and foxes, the cries of birds. How can I be lonely with such company?”

Words by Jeff Moag



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