Professor of Adventure

Professor of Adventure

Millican Dalton

1867 – 1947

Maggie B Dickinson – Published in Cumbria magazine December 2017

Despite its diminutive height, the pretty wooded conicular eminence of Castle Crag stands its ground within the dramatic “Jaws of Borrowdale” that dominate the skyline and restrict passage through this narrow part of the valley.  During November especially we will lift up our eyes unto this hill, which never fails to impress through its beauty, and because it commemorates World War One.  It was given to the National Trust in memory of Lieutenant John Hamer, who died a century ago in the Great War.  A plaque on its summit records his name and a further ten souls who were also killed in battle.

Castle Crag, David Woodthorpe
Castle Crag  © David Woodthorpe

On the eastern flank of the crag is a large double slate cave from quarrying days.  During World War Two it became an air raid shelter for Millican Dalton, a self-styled “Professor of Adventure” and one of Lakeland’s enduring characters, who was born one hundred and fifty years ago. What better way to remember this lovable individual than have an actor assume his guise and entertain an audience within Millican’s shrine.

 Photograph © Keith Pattison – Actor Peter Macqueen as Millican –

On September 16th Peter Macqueen, who trained at Bristol Old Vic and now lives in Keswick, organised the celebration in his memory by giving two performances of his one-man play “The Professor of Adventure” to audiences of sixty people who had climbed the crag on which Millican is said to have spent forty summers and one winter of his life.  Peter’s efforts were supported by staff from Theatre by the Lake and the National Trust, who bravely carried lighting, generators, and other necessities up to the venue.

“The story of Millican Dalton, his passion for the natural world, his philosophy and his outlook on life, inspired me to write ‘The Professor of Adventure’, and after two sell-out runs at Theatre by the Lake and touring to rural venues around the North, I decided I wanted to do something a bit different,” says Peter.  “In this, his 150th anniversary year, I wanted to celebrate the man in a special way. What better than to perform in his own ‘Cave Hotel’ under the rock that was his roof, surrounded by his slate home, looking out on the fells that inspired him and absorbing the spirit of Borrowdale and it’s ‘Professor’”.

Millican, a Quaker, pacifist, and vegetarian with an addiction to strong coffee and Wills’s Woodbine cigarettes, was born in 1867 to William and Frances (née Millican) Dalton at Foulard, Nenthead, Alston.  His family history on both sides shows important roles in lead mining and smelting.  Unfortunately when Millican was seven years old his father died and his mother, a lady of independent means, moved to the edge of Epping Forest with her seven children.

It was here that Millican developed hobbies and interests in the great outdoors.  During his time working in the City as an insurance clerk he abandoned bricks and mortar.  Records show that in 1901 he was living in a tent in Thornwood, Epping Forest.  His humble abode was christened with the Portuguese name of Esperança; meaning hope. Three years later he had given up his day job to concentrate on outdoor pursuits.

He and his brother Henry, also an insurance clerk, used to head for the Lake District in the early 1900s on bicycles, carrying camping gear which was extremely heavy.  Having fallen in love with the mountains, they became pioneer rock climbers. Through their experiences they were both were involved with the innovative production of lighter-weight camping gear, rucksacks and clothing, fashioned with a hand-operated sewing machine.  Millican continued using such a device when he established his summer home in Borrowdale – initially in a tent at High Lodore and later in Castle Crag cave.  Indeed, he claimed it was he and not Robert Baden-Powell – founder of Scouting – who invented shorts.

These products, along with a small private income and his earnings from leading adventurous tours and guided walks, both in the UK and abroad, financed his modest lifestyle.  He had little interest in money and got pleasure from foraging on Grange refuse tip – not far from his cave – for items that could be recycled as either cooking utensils or for the gear he was manufacturing.

The philosophy of Mindfulness and living in the moment has become immensely popular of late but it was Millican’s theory a hundred years ago.  His belief that the simplest life is the most rewarding, and brings happiness, attracted like-minded individuals and he delighted in entertaining and accommodating them overnight in his cave.

There was great camaraderie when he cooked food for them on the campfire, which included brown trout from the Derwent and potatoes he’d grown outside the cave.  Their lively conversation and friendly banter isn’t difficult to imagine as they shared tales of derring-do on rock faces and Millican’s raft “Rogue Herris” when he sailed them down the river and across Derwent Water. One of his many fascinating expressions – ‘Don’t waste words; jump to conclusions’ – can still be seen etched on a wall of the cave.

Millican Dalton from Robin Bainbridge

Millican and Dr Mabel Barker, born in 1886 in Silloth, became close friends.  He had an unusual attitude towards women and treat them as equals, automatically giving them the choice of leading climbs.  A woman before her time, Mabel was an academic with an impressive CV emphasising her skills in Geography (Oxford), Geology (London), and details of a PhD thesis written during her time at Montpellier University in southern France.

As a teacher with a passion for outdoor education she ran an unconventional private day and boarding school at Friar Row in Caldbeck providing a broader education in nature than other establishments.  With Millican’s encouragement she became a climber of note, notching up the distinction of being the first female to ascend the Central Buttress on Scafell in 1925 and traverse the Cuillin Ridge on the Isle if Skye.

Millican was fond of climbing Napes Needle.  On the fiftieth occasion he carried sticks to light a tiny fire on which he brewed a strong coffee to celebrate, whilst wallowing in the panorama and solitude.

Jorrit and Nicky Jorritsma, founders of Millican, The Keswick Bag Company, were so inspired by Millican Dalton’s life that they started their business by using his name and principles to create bags and other items from sustainable materials that have a long life.

“It was in Millican Dalton’s footsteps that we found our way to the Lake District,” says Jorritt, “and in his name that we started making our bags based on the principle of simplicity.  We respect his philosophy; his refusal to conform and his insistence on going his own way. In Millican’s own words ‘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’”.

Because of his achievement on Napes Needle they have created an inspirational “On the Go” coffee kit, which includes two quaint cups bearing the name Millican.

Sam Hicks, organist at Holy Trinity Church in Grange-in-Borrowdale since 1960, is one of only a handful of folk who can recall Millican.  “He had a pale blue bicycle,” Sam tells me.  “I believe he’d painted it himself.  I remember it being parked between a couple of hazel trees on Hollows Lane, prior to Castle Crag, when he was in residence.”

Apart from trips to Keswick, Millican would patronise the shop in Rosthwaite and the post office in Grange for certain supplies, like the Daily Herald and his cigarettes, carrying them away on the bike’s crossbar.  Mainly, though, he lived off the land as much as possible.  His favourite hazelnuts grew on the banks of the Derwent and these would supplement the black bread he baked on a hot stone in the cave.  Because he lacked interest in money he preferred to exchange goods.

“One day around 1942,” recalls Sam, “there was a small group of us outside the post office, next to Grange Bridge.  The other kids were evacuees from South Shields.  Millican pulled up on his bicycle to share some of his bread with us.  It was rock hard and far from palatable, but kind of him all the same.”

According to a newspaper account of April 1939, Millican’s winter shack at High Heavens Camp, Marlow Bottom in Buckinghamshire was gutted by fire.  This was probably why he spent the winter of 1941/42 in his cave.  It was during this time that he wrote to Sir Winston Churchill asking him to stop the war.

Millican returned to Marlow for the last time in the winter of 1946/1947, the most severe since 1740.  I recall it well. There were endless weeks of snowfall, roads blocked by drifts, smothered farm stock and communities completely cut off any services.  He had constructed a gypsy-style tent to replace the hut but this proved inadequate and he was admitted to Amersham Hospital suffering from pneumonia from which he died on February 5th at the age of 79 years.


The author wishes to thank David Woodthorpe, Tricia Roscamp, Stephanie Bradshaw, Sam Hicks, Peter Macqueen –  and Marilyn Ladd for their invaluable assistance

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