MILLICAN DALTON: A Search for Romance & Freedom

By M.D. Entwistle


Essex and mountains might seem an unlikely combination, but they come together in the extraordinary figure of Millican Dalton. Widely dubbed the Caveman of Borrowdale, he was a former office worker who made a peculiar life-journey to become an enduring legend of the Lake District.


Millican's story has been told in full for the first time by M.D. Entwistle. The Blackburn author's researches into Dalton's life have taken him into some of the wildest places in England — but also to the soft commuter towns of Essex, where the transformation from Chingford suburbanite to modern-day caveman, is said to have begun.

Millican Dalton was born in 1867 in the mining village of Nenthead, Cumberland, and later attended Friends School, Wigton. After a relatively uneventful childhood he moved south with his family in search of a better future. His early working years were spent as an insurance clerk in the City of London. A thrill-packed existence it wasn’t, and after only a short period of time within the confines of his office, he realised it was dull, repetitive and boring. He felt stifled and wanted to be free. Away from the workplace Millican’s life become steadily more unconventional when he substituted his terrace house for an acre of land in Billericay, where he moved into a tent and lived off his land.

Bad technique or Publicity shot? One of the myths dispelled in the book.Dalton began to dream of a new career — as a mountain guide. At the age of 36 a small legacy enabled him to quit his orthodox job in the commercial world and he headed to Switzerland to train for his new role. Around this time he also conjured up the phrase that was to describe his working life and his dreams. He dubbed himself the Professor of Adventure. The name said it all. Under Dalton's tutelage, those seeking escape from the stress and dreariness of the rat race could learn about such things as camping, rock climbing, rafting, white water canoeing and ghyll scrambling, in far-flung destinations such as Ireland, Wales, Scotland and the Swiss Alps.

Mixed-sex camping parties, unheard of at that time and regarded as a social taboo, bought into Dalton’s knowledge and experience of the open air. They also gained close contact with a role model who, like all great professors, guided them through the pathways of a new philosophy. For by now Dalton had evolved a complete thought system based on a sturdy self-reliance, minimum materialism and close contact with nature. In the winter months, to augment his income, Dalton would work at his sewing machine, producing a line in lightweight tents and rucksacks — throughout his life he was an experimenter, pioneer and innovator in the field of minimalist camping equipment.

The High Lodore Camp, with commanding views towards Derwentwater and Skiddaw, became the base from which Dalton's adventure tours operated. He lived the rest of his life in the open, sleeping under outcrops or in tents, caves, forest huts and bivvies, always 'comfortable' on his bracken mattress and wrapped-up in the "wonderous comfort" of an eiderdown quilt. Eventually, in search of a more permanent summer base, Dalton moved into a large split levelled cave on the eastern flank of Castle Crag in Borrowdale.This spacious cave had two 'rooms' and a constant supply of water through a fissure in the ceiling. The transition from suburbanite to caveman had well and truly been made. Unsurprisingly he received a considerable amount of publicity for his alternate choice of ‘home’, which he called “The Cave Hotel.”

He seemed as much a part of Lakeland as the rocks themselves. Dalton’s bearded, craggy face, topped by a battered Tyrolean hat, grew increasingly to look like a landslide on one of the fells. His distinctive home-made dress and gangling figure meant that he was instantly recognisable, and he became one of the “sights” of Keswick. He was a man well ahead of his time and lived a life of stoic simplicity. Millican was a socialist, pacifist, vegetarian, and teetotaller, who grew his own food and sewed his own clothes.

Meanwhile, the years and the decades flowed by, but Dalton's uncompromising lifestyle remained unaffected by the advance of old age. He continued to sleep rough in all weathers, until his final demise in the artic conditions of 1947 when life within his Gypsy tent became too hard to bide. Millican Dalton died aged 79.

There are ample illustrations throughout the book — including 51 vintage black and white photographs, many of which were previously unpublished. Further to the well researched biographical details, the author asks the reader to consider whether, bearing in mind the evidence he provides, Millican Dalton may have played a greater role in the development of British rock climbing, and whether his reputation for eccentricity has overshadowed his achievements.

Millican Dalton: A Search for Romance & Freedom featured at the 2005 International Festival of Mountaineering Literature and the 2005 Kendal Mountain Book Festival. It's an enjoyable read and packed with a brilliant array of anecdotes. One of the more dramatic events of Dalton's later years came in 1941, when World War II was at its height. After writing to Winston Churchill demanding an immediate end to the hostilities because they were interfering with his liberty, Dalton received a visit from the Air Raid Warden for Keswick who had noticed a campfire burning in his Borrowdale cave, and climbed the mountain to tell him "Put that light out!" Dalton had never bowed to social conventions and he wasn’t going to start now. The fire kept on burning, and it still burns today in the pages of his biography.

MILLICAN DALTON: A Search for Romance & Freedom - £8.99 & Free P&P