Millican Dalton: The Adventurous Spirit

Adventurous spirits all over the world can relate to Millican Dalton’s dream. In fact, many still talk of this self-styled "Professor of Adventure", who famously lived in a cave in the Borrowdale Valley, in the English Lake District, in the early 1900s. We journey into the world of Millican Dalton – who gave up his city life to seek romance and freedom.

Forty years ago I was working as a clerk in a city office. Day after day I went to the office at the same time. 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 Dalton, 1933 (while clinging to a large beech tree)

You could say Millican Dalton was the original outdoorsman. Even though his family moved from Cumberland to London when he was very young, Millican’s early childhood was spent climbing trees and mountaineering out of bedroom windows. By his late teens, Millican was exploring further afield with his brother Henry. Their bicycles loaded with heavy camping gear, they explored the Lake District, Scotland and Wales, making a hobby out of experimenting with lightweight equipment that would ease their long journeys.  

As a young adult, Millican fell in love with the Lake District. He and his brother spent every public holiday they could, camping in the Borrowdale and Wasdale Valleys – prime locations for hiking and climbing. They became engrossed in the outdoor scene that was emerging. At the time of the golden era of British rock-climbing, they were among the first to discover this adventurous outdoor lifestyle in the Lake District.

millican dalton by tent 2.jpg

In search of Romance and Freedom

It might not come as a surprise that Millican was stifled in an office job. His office-bound career as a fire insurance clerk got in the way of the outdoor adventures he loved. He developed a powerful urge to live his life in the open, and he certainly lived out the dream.

In 1904 Millican famously left his job and conventional life behind, setting out to “seek romance and freedom." He defined these ideals in intriguing ways: "romance" as exploring one’s own personality and the potential of the mind; focussing on one’s passions and creative spirit (regardless of rules and protocol) and connecting with nature in order to appreciate its beauty. Millican’s number one priority was "non-conformation with society’s expectations." He really did break free.

Use is everything. We dress too much, we eat too much, almost everything we do is too much. Put a man to it and see what he can come up with.
— Millican Dalton

Wild camping in Borrowdale

Becoming a mountain guide was just the start of Millican’s original take on life. His new business led him to set up a living camp in the Borrowdale Valley. 

First at High Lodore Camp and later in his very own "Cave Hotel", Millican had all he needed – mountains and rocks where he’d share guided adventures, nature and spectacular scenery to enjoy while he cooked over his open fire. Shelter from the Lakeland weather was provided by a cave, which Millican claimed as his own and filled with his very few possessions (the most advanced of which was a sewing machine).

Millican lived with the firm belief that material possessions do not provide happiness and satisfaction. So he honed his campcraft and took great pleasure in his free and simple lifestyle. He became an expert in it.

Millican dressed for functionality never fashion, ate simple meals and focussed only on what he needed. Perhaps his only vices were his “ruling passion” for brewing very strong coffee, which he’d buy in Keswick town centre and lace with syrup, and his habit of smoking Woodbines.

Locals in the Lake District knew Millican as the Borrowdale Hermit. To tourists and aspiring adventures he became known as a leading light, whose guiding services were in great demand. On the inside wall of Millican’s Cave Hotel was an inscription that perhaps sums up his whole approach to life: “Don’t waste words, jump to conclusions”

Professor of Adventure

Millican took his mountain guiding very seriously. He ran a rigorous annual programme of camping tours, mountaineering experiences and "hair-breadth escapes." In the winter months, he grew his income by making camping equipment that he would rent out and sell.

Using everything he knew about the demands of lightweight cycle camping and his unrivalled experience in the outdoor world, Millican designed innovative tents, sleeping bags and rucksacks that were way ahead of his time. His two-man tent weighed less than 3.5 pounds, impressive even by today’s standards. Simple Egyptian cotton with a tight weave was the key – it was light to carry and in rain, the cotton would swell and become waterproof. He transformed woollen Jaeger blankets into sleeping bags, and made rucksacks to order. He called it “handicraft from a years user”.

Millican Dalton was a maverick. He celebrated sustainable living as a truly rewarding lifestyle, well before it became a modern day movement. And his natural affinity with the outdoors no doubt has a legacy in today’s world of challenges and pursuits. He valued romance and freedom over conventional gain and has inspired many others to follow their hearts in the same way. 

Jorrit & Nicky are co-founders of Millican, The Keswick Bag Co. Inspired by Millican Dalton’s life, they founded their company in the Lake District in his name. Millican make bags and accessories for outdoor living and travel, using sustainable materials, timeless styles and designs that are good for life. Read more about Millican Dalton in his biography Millican Dalton: The Life and Times of a Borrowdale Caveman.