A Millican Dalton Microadventure.....

28th Mar 2016

“After treating life as a chemical experiment, I find that the simplest life is the happiest.”  Millican Dalton

Millican cave 2

As modern life gets more complicated and hectic, it seems there are more and more of us seeking something different.  It may be, to name just a few, living in a tiny house or camper van, travelling the world, volunteering overseas or working on an organic farm - there seem to be endless ways people are seeking to change gear and live a simpler and maybe more fulfilling life.  It is getting more common and also, so it seems, more socially acceptable and we often celebrate those with the drive and determination to make a change. 

These ‘live simply’ individuals come from every walk of life and yet it seems those participating in sports like climbing (and similar ‘lifestyle’ sports) are more drawn than ever to this type of existence.  Infact, many of the instructors and guides we know have this maverick streak and we know more than a few who are in this line of work to seek, as well as loving the chance to inspire and educate others, a path that creates a favourable work life balance.  

So it may not be that unusual nowadays, but in the early part of the 1900’s an individual that chose to leave a secure and stable existence to follow a simpler path would be far rarer. At the age of 36, a keen camper, cyclist, climber and insurance clerk called Millican Dalton made that choice.  He built a small forest hut in Buckinghamshire for the winter months and headed to the Lake District to camp away his summers.  This was a time in history when social conformity was the norm and the change must have been extremely difficult to make.  When he was interviewed by the Sunday Chronicle newspaper in 1933, Millican said, “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 wanted to live a simpler life but also wanted to inspire others.  He soon adopted the title “Professor of Adventure” and began offering adventure trips to interested campers and lovers of the outdoors.  He took people climbing, rafting and ‘rapid shooting’ and later, in seeking an even closer connection to nature, moved into a cave in the Borrowdale valley.  Here Millican designed his own camping equipment and made his own clothes on a small sewing machine, ate a healthy natural diet and baked his own bread (some of which he sold to locals and tourists) along with inventing many ingenious ways to lead an efficient and sustainable existence.

millican cave 3

He remained a bachelor and although sometimes people leading such an alternative and individual lifestyle may become introverted and reclusive, he was known to be extremely sociable and loved nothing more than meeting and mixing with all types of people.  Visitors to the cave were always welcome and would be encouraged to enjoy some coffee and hearty campfire discussion.   He was also known to be a very ‘individual’ dresser and would be seen around Keswick with his trademark Tyrollean hat and unique design of handmade clothes.  Visitors spoke of the sense of peace and relaxation that they felt after spending time with Millican.  

Millican died in 1947 aged seventy nine after suffering from heart failure.  He had sought a simpler existence but was no drop-out opting for the easy life - Millican actually considered his life a philosophical investigation into what constituted a good life.  After his death a book lay uncompleted by his bedside. Titled “Philosophy of Life”, it was his journal of observations based on thirty years living in the wilderness.  The unfinished book was never published.

Last night, Cal, Ben, Tom and I team walked out of Grange (a picturesque village in the Borrowdale Valley) with rucksacks and a plan.  The weather was changeable and breezy but we were excited by a new micro adventure.  We strolled along the side of the River Derwent and, after a couple of kilometres, came to a fork in the path.  We turned right and climbed the hillside until, among some old mine workings, we came to some large caves.  The first was damp and uninviting but the second, a large split level affair, was dry and clean inside.  Some flattened platforms and a few names scratched into the rock was evidence others had been here before, but no one disturbed us during our visit.  This was the cave Millican Dalton had lived in.

millican cave 1

We laid out sleeping mats and bags and cooked some food on gas stoves, then sat eating dinner comfortable and dry in the mouth of the cave as the sun went down and rain fell outside. After relaxing and soaking up the ambience of this special place, we settled into our sleeping bags, chatted for a while and the others soon fell asleep.  For a while before drifting off I lay awake in the darkness trying to imagine the cave during Millican’s time here.  It was a lovely feeling to be following, at least in a very small way, in the footsteps of this inspiring individualist.

The next I knew was sunlight streaming through the cave entrance and a new day had dawned.  We cooked breakfast while still in bed and eventually, after cleaning up and packing, headed back to Grange.  There was no wifi or phone signal last night, no TV or computers to distract us.  We took the minimum equipment and travelled as light as we could.  We got as close to feral as comfort would allow.  We weren’t Millican Dalton feral, but kept it simple enough to get a feel for the beauty and simplicity of the life he strived for.  We resolved, as we strolled back to Grange, to be Millican Dalton’s more often.

Posted by Paul

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