Ever dreamt of giving it all up and running away to the hills? Meet Millican Dalton – a true original and free-spirited adventurer who did just that, leaving a secure job in London to live in a cave in the Lake District over 100 years ago – and Jorrit Jorritsma, co-founder of the sustainable outdoor company inspired by his incredible story.
A life-affirming weekend away; cycling, camping, climbing. Waking up to birdsong in the trees above; watching the sunset from a mountainside – the colours reflected in the lake below – while cooking dinner on an open fire. The sort of soul-stirring adventure that makes you wish you never had to go back to everyday life and work. Most of us, reluctantly, do. Millican Dalton, however, didn’t.
The Lake District legend Millican Dalton (1867–1947) was an early pioneer of cycle camping and mountain adventures, during the golden age of British climbing. Enjoying many trips away with his brother, his adventures initially had to fit around the ‘sensible’, reliable career he’d began as an insurance clerk in London. But by the age of 36, Millican’s yearning for the wild had become irrepressible. In a maverick act for his time, he gave up his regulated, office-bound existence to “seek romance and freedom” in a simple, self-sufficient outdoor life.
First living under canvas, Millican later spent his summers in a cave in Borrowdale, on the eastern flank of Castle Crag, which he dubbed ‘The Cave Hotel’. A vegetarian, pacifist and teetotaller, the self-styled “Professor of Adventure” baked his own bread, made his own clothes (with a sewing machine, his most valuable possession in the cave) and survived off the modest income he made as a climbing guide, leading small groups on “mountain rapid shooting, rafting, [and] hair’s-breadth escapes”.
In winter, Millican (aka “The Skipper”) moved south to a wooden shed in Buckinghamshire, where he made lightweight tents, sleeping bags and rucksacks – many of them impressive by today’s standards – to rent out and sell, topping up his small income. He called this gear “handicraft – made by a year’s user”.
“I love the fact that he’d made such a conscious choice, an alien one to many, while being ahead of his time in embracing sustainable living by making so many of his own tools, bags and camping gear.”
“I found a book about Millican’s life in our local outdoor store, George Fisher, while pondering what to do next with my life,” says Jorrit Jorritsma, co-founder of Millican, a Lake District-based company making bags and accessories for outdoor living and travel, named after the original trailblazer who inspired Jorrit and his partner, Nicky, to follow his path. “I love the fact that he’d made such a conscious choice, an alien one to many, while being ahead of his time in embracing sustainable living by making so many of his own tools, bags and camping gear.”
Millican lived in the Borrowdale cave for nearly 50 years, carving his own epitaph into the rock above his sleeping area: “Don’t Waste Words, Jump to Conclusions.”
“I’ve walked to his cave many times over the years,” says Jorrit. “It’s a very evocative place. The walk itself is beautiful and very gentle, although the cave itself can easily be missed.” (The path follows a river and goes through woods before gently rising to the foot of Castle Crag). “The space is split in two parts, on two levels,” Jorrit continues. “He seemed to have used the top level as his main living area – it’s very well protected from the weather, with a sizeable ledge for outside cooking and camping.” On this ledge, Millican would spend happy evenings with his groups sharing stories, insights and ideas around the fire, under the wild stars.
“On my first visit one early morning,” remembers Jorrit, “the faces of several young rock climbers peered out – as proof that the Cave Hotel is still used at times. It’s easy to imagine Millican living his life of simplicity and self-sufficiency there all those years ago.”
The next chapter
Carrying the torch for Millican Dalton’s legacy, how does Jorrit feel about his company equipping people to venture out and find their own romance and freedom in the outdoors? What does it mean over 100 years on, in these challenging times? “Over the last five to ten years, there’s been a wider and growing societal movement of ‘getting outside’ more, without that having to be activity specific or extreme outdoors,” he says.
“Millican was not a performance climber. He was simply interested in teaching others a wide array of skills to make the most of being outside. So this sentiment and approach to life lives on to this day, while society in 2020 is adapting to a new normal, seeking adventures closer to home and realising there’s a lot of ‘outside’ to enjoy on our doorstep.”
“This sentiment and approach to life lives on to this day, while society in 2020 is adapting to a new normal, seeking adventures closer to home and realising there’s a lot of ‘outside’ to enjoy on our doorstep.”
Ideals to live by?
Millican Dalton eventually died in a hospital ward, aged 79. An uncompleted book – sadly now lost – lay by his bedside. Titled Philosophy of Life, it was his journal of thoughts and observations from a life in the wilderness. Though the contents of Philosophy remain unknown, Millican’s life itself expounded such a bright and compelling philosophy, three ideals float clearly to the surface:
1. FREEDOM IS EVERYTHING
Millican saw ‘romance’ as exploring one’s own personality, mind and soul; focussing on spirit, adventure and personal passion while casting aside conventional life and ‘wisdom’. Immersing himself in nature to fully appreciate its beauty, he prized “non-conformation with society’s expectations”.
Unsurprisingly, Jorrit knows Millican Dalton quotes like the back of his hand. His favourite? “Free I am as the buzzard mewing by day or the owl hooting by night – freedom is everything.” These words “capture the essence of his philosophy of achieving happiness through freedom and simplicity”, Jorrit reflects. “The search for freedom and simplicity is something many of us pursue in our own lives today as well, looking for our personal answers. I’m still searching!”
“Free I am as the buzzard mewing by day or the owl hooting by night – freedom is everything.”
2. SIMPLE HAPPINESS
“…we reclined in our red blankets, gazing on the ever changing tints of the sky, yellow, orange, crimson, pink and grey, merging into the blue, purple and violet of the hills – all these colours duplicated in the lake beneath.”
The simple yet deeply satisfying experiences to be had out in nature fed Millican’s soul – negating the need for material possessions that had no use. “Use is everything,” he said. “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.”
3. TAKE IT SLOW
Never motivated by adrenalin or competition, Millican’s laid back calm rubbed off on his visitors, who often spoke of the sense of peace and relaxation they felt after spending time with him.
As well as climbing peaks like Scafell Pike, Helvellyn and Great Gable for the satisfaction and exhilaration of reaching the summit, Millican’s camping tours frequently included a “lazy day about camp”. There were no time pressures, and every suggestion on the itinerary included “if desired”. “Rafting, bathing and picnicking” – on Millican’s homemade rafts – were as much a part of the experience as hiking and climbing. “He respected all that nature could give him,” explains a Millican blog post on the subject, “and returned the favour by educating others of its long-term benefits, urging them to pause every once in a while.”
homeofmillican.com is offering the Another Place community the chance to win a 25L limited edition rucksack, featuring a specially designed illustrated lining of the Borrowdale valley, as well as packing cubes to organise your things inside. Enter online.