Millican Dalton and Castle Crag
Wainwright called the Jaws of Borrowdale, “the loveliest square mile in Lakeland”. In the first half of the twentieth century, a cave on the slopes of Castle Crag was home to Millican Dalton, who quit his job in a London office to become a self-styled “Professor of Adventure”. On this walk up Castle Crag, I consider his life, visit his cave and recall a WWI Christmas story that seems to echo his essential message.
In David Guterson’s novel, The Other, Neil Countryman is an English teacher and an aspiring writer – his desk drawers are full of unpublished novels. Despite being the first Countryman to go to college, he identifies himself as someone “familiar with the middle of the pack”.
Countryman formed a deep and enduring friendship with John William Barry; “The Hermit of the Hoh”, as the newspapers dub him when his body is discovered in the riverside cave that had become his home. Barry was a rich boy, privately educated and heir to a fortune. He met Neil running track and the two bonded over a slightly rebellious outlook and a love of the outdoors. Rebellion to Countryman meant cutting classes and smoking the odd joint. To Barry, ultimately, it meant rejecting civilised society and adopting a life of primitive isolation, deep in the woods of Washington state.
The novel is Neil’s retrospective examination of their friendship and a search, perhaps, for understanding. John William was undoubtedly troubled and, as the pieces of the jigsaw fit into place, an impression is formed of a tormented young man, driven to an ascetic life by personal demons.
On a mundane Monday morning, which of us hasn’t dreamed of escaping the rat race and living a life of adventure closer to nature? For most of us, though, the perfect outdoor expedition ends with a cold pint and a hot bath. If we hear of someone who really has gone feral, we suspect a Barry figure, replete with deep emotional scars. But John William is a fiction. The reality can be surprisingly different…
The Professor of Adventure
“Meet Mr Millican Dalton. He is one of the creatures of the wild. He lives in a cave up in one of the wooded crags that are the glory of Borrowdale… Mr Dalton is 73½ years of age, is tall, spare, hard as a fell toad and if you were to meet him you would agree that in his Tyrolese hat, decorated with a heron’s plume, his plaid drawn over a brown tweed coat, his green corduroy shorts, sinewy legs, sometimes encased in puttees and climbing boots, he looks a fine figure of a man.”
Thus, began an article in the Whitehaven News on January 30th, 1941. It went on to quote a gloriously upbeat Millican. ‘I was a clerk in a London office. The life stifled me. I longed to be free. I gave up my job and ever since I have camped out. Today I live rent free, rate free, tax free. It’s the only kind of life worth living.’ ”
Dalton was born in 1867, in Nenthead, Cumbria, near the borders of Northumberland and Durham. His family moved south when he was seven and he spent many of his formative years in Chingford, Essex, close to Epping Forest, where he and his brothers embarked on endless adventures, camping and tree-climbing. Holidays in the Lake District saw Millican graduate from tree climbing to rock-climbing and experiment with raft-building. When he left school, he found the working week dull by comparison. He spoke of feeling “constricted, like a caged animal” and longed for the outdoor pursuits, which afforded him full self-expression. A vegetarian and ardent socialist, Millican placed little value on material things (apart from Woodbines, which he smoked with a passion). In 1904, he decided to treat his life like a “chemical experiment” and jack in the humdrum in favour of a life of adventure and romance.
Dalton spent his winters in the south, initially in Essex and later in Buckinghamshire, where he swapped bricks and mortar for a wooden cabin. His summers, he spent in the Lake District, and from around 1914, moved into the cave on the slopes of Castle Crag. Dalton became an accomplished mountain guide, building a loyal following, keen to experience his advertised “Camping Holidays, Mountain Rapid Shooting. Rafting. Hairbreadth Escapes.” He made his own clothes and pioneered lightweight camping equipment. He was an early member of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club, documenting trail-blazing ascents, such as Dove Crag, in their journals. Unconventional through and through, Millican had little truck with the prevailing notion that rock climbing was an exclusively male pursuit. He introduced several women to the sport, most notably Mabel Barker, whose initiation took her to the top of Napes Needle. Barker went on to become something of a figurehead for women’s climbing and remained a lifelong friend of Dalton’s.
In 1940, the Blitzkrieg wrought destruction on London. With his Buckinghamshire home, a little close to comfort, Dalton opted to over-winter in Cumbria. By now, he was something of a national celebrity. The Daily Mirror declared, “Today this seventy-three year old hermit is less affected by the war than any man in Britain”. This was wrong on two counts.
Living in a cave was about the only thing Dalton had in common with Guterson’s “hermit of the Hoh”. Millican hadn’t taken to the woods to escape from people. Indeed, his campfire played host to a constant stream of visitors, coming to sample his home-baked bread, home-grown vegetables and engage in lively conversation with this most convivial, gentlemanly and strongly opinionated of characters. Mabel Barker recalled, “in long association, I never knew him charge anything for his services beyond a trifle for camping expenses”. What he would readily accept in lieu of money, were Woodbines and newspapers (specifically, the Daily Herald). This was not a man, hiding from society. Quite the contrary, he had a keen interest in politics and current affairs. Had he stuck with insurance, he might have become a middle manager. As it was, he became a self-styled “Professor of Adventure”.
The Daily Mirror was also wrong to suggest Millican was untroubled by the war. At the behest of blackout wardens, he had to put out his campfire and brave the winter nights in an unheated cave. He obliged, but was far from happy with the arrangement, and wrote to Winston Churchill several times, demanding that he stop the war as it was impinging on his personal liberty.
Dalton’s opposition went deeper than a dispute over a campfire, however. He had been in his forties when the First World War broke out, so was too old to serve in either. Had he been younger, as a committed pacifist, he would almost certainly have been a conscientious objector.
Despite his gargantuan appetite for Woodbines, Millican remained fit as a fiddle all his life. Every spring, he climbed Napes Needle, with the promise that as soon as it proved too much for him, he would retire from climbing. He never did, but his outdoor existence did finally catch up with him. On returning to Buckinghamshire, he inadvertently burnt down his cabin. Millican survived the fire, but attempted to see out the rest of the winter under canvas. January 1947 was particularly harsh, and this proved too much for his seventy-nine-year-old body. A month later, he died in Amersham hospital of acute heart failure, pulmonary bronchitis and bronchopneumonia.
Today, Millican Dalton’s cave is something of a shrine for those who love the outdoors, but his appeal is broader. Like Neil Countryman, many of us find we are familiar with the middle of the pack. Hopefully, few turn out as troubled as the hermit of the Hoh; but perhaps, a little part of the Professor of Adventure lives in all of us (even if its expression has nothing to do with caves and mountains). Dalton’s story inspires because it says, “to hell with convention”, “be who are you are and live the way that makes you happy”.
Into the Jaws of Borrowdale
It’s early November, when I decide to pay the cave a visit. Between the flanks of High Spy and Kings How, Borrowdale is squeezed to a narrow passage, barely wide enough for the road and the river Derwent to co-exist. This dramatic opening is aptly named “The Jaws of Borrowdale”. Castle Crag is the impressive incisor, rising from the river on the western side. At just under 1000 feet, Bill Birkett considered it too small to include in his Complete Lakeland Fells. Wainwright took a different view, however: “Castle Crag is so magnificently independent, so ruggedly individual, so aggressively unashamed of its lack of inches, that less than justice would be done by relegating it to a paragraph in the High Spy chapter.” He goes on to describe the Jaws of Borrowdale as “the loveliest square mile in Lakeland”.
I climbed High Spy in June when the slopes were as green as a Granny Smith. Now, deep into autumn, they resemble a Russet or a Cox’s Orange Pippin. I park in Rosthwaite and take the track beside the Flock Inn Tearoom that leads through a farmyard to the river. The trees are already sparsely leaved, allowing golden sunlight to gild the waters and do ample justice to Wainwright’s eulogy. I cross the pretty stone arch of New Bridge and bear right along the bank. Castle Crag rises ahead, and I can pick out the direct path to the summit. This will be my way down.
By the water, a herd of Galloway cattle grazes lazily on hay. I stick on the path that skirts the slope and follows the river into the trees.
Where Guterson depicts the forests of Washington State as a savage wilderness, High How Woods are a sylvan idyll. They would be a harsh home in winter, mind. The Daily Mirror piece had photo of Dalton in his cave, standing before a curtain of giant icicles. To camp out here in January, with no campfire, would take a hide considerably thicker than mine.
The path snakes away from the river and, before long, a cave appears on the left. This was not Millican’s, but according to my directions, his lies above. I follow a sketchy path that climbs behind it, turning into a semi-scramble over rock and a spoil heap. On reaching the top, a cavern lies ahead, but it is shallow and dripping with water – by no means inhabitable. I notice a better path rising from the right, which continues upwards to a more likely cave. Someone has chalked a heart and “MD” on a slate by the entrance, so I know this is the place.
It’s roomy and the opening provides just enough light that my head torch isn’t really needed. I switch it on anyway and the beam reveals the unexpected grandeur of the rock. I’d imagined uniform walls of slate-grey, but here, dark charcoal gives way to sparkling white crystal and strata of red, ochre and terra cotta.
I climb the loose stone staircase to the upper level, which Dalton called “the attic”. This was where he slept; someone has bestowed his bed with a fresh mattress of bracken. The Whitehaven News gave a vivid insight into how this looked in Millican’s time: “Everything within is ‘wondrous neat and clean.’ Cleverly packed is the cave-dweller’s camp equipment and cooking utensils, which have all been picked out of village dumps. There was a place for everything and everything was in its place. In one corner was Millican Dalton’s lying-up place. Bracken for a bed and a plaid and an eiderdown for covering. And on this deadly cold night Millican had, as is his wont, taken off his day clothes before he stretched himself out to sleep. Which of us accustomed to the luxury of a bed in a well warmed house would not have been frozen stiff?”
By the entrance, just beyond his bed, a motto is carved into the rock: “DON’T!! WASTE WORRDS Jump to conclusions”. The inscription may not be Dalton’s, but that of a Scottish friend, whom he frequently chided for doing just that – chiselled, no doubt, as a joke after an infuriating debate.
Below the cave, I follow the river through the woods, then turn left along the bridleway to Honister. As I climb beside Broadslack Gill, Castle Crag rises in a sheer cliff to my left, while behind, the valley is a patchwork of autumnal pigment as it bows to Derwent Water and the imperious summits of Skiddaw. Just past the cliff face, a path forks sharply left, climbs a stile and zig zags up the steep gradient toward the summit. On the way, it passes a bench and stone plaque to Sir William Hamer, the former landowner, in whose memory, his wife Agnes, bequeathed this land to the National Trust. Agnes made this bequest in 1939, at the onset of the Second World War. Several years earlier, the couple had bequeathed the summit, in memory of their son, John, who died in World War One.
The path winds through spoil heaps to the summit quarry, where successions of walkers have arranged slates into a makeshift sculpture park. Many stand on end like tombstones to by-gone industry and the many millions of boots that have marked this passage. Others are more ambitious in their arrangement. One resembles a creature with the back of a stegosaurus and the toothy jaw of a shark. A large beehive cairn crowns the southern extent and marks a spectacular view, over the neat, green meadows of Borrowdale, to the wild, precipitous face of Eagle Crag. A red squirrel hops among the trees and for a while I’m undisturbed. It’s deeply peaceful and a strange, beautiful equanimity settles; a profound ease; a quiet, unruffled calm; a serene, sense of belonging.
No Man’s Land
A grassy path leads up, above the quarry, to the summit proper. Set into the rock is the memorial, not just to John Hamer but to all the men of Borrowdale who died in the trenches. A poppy wreath from the Association of the Royal Engineers has been placed below. My Dad was a Royal Engineer. Perhaps that’s why the plaque holds my attention; or perhaps it’s the backdrop of Derwent Water; or the little wooden cross with the ballpoint inscription, “Danny Glynn”; but as I read the roll of names, I’m very moved by these young lives, cut so cruelly short.
Simple hilltop memorials, like this, speak louder to me than the televised parades and pageantry that accompany Remembrance Sunday. I think of Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth:
“What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, –
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing down of blinds.”
These men of Borrowdale were barely out of boyhood. Had they returned, they might have spent summers trading Woodbines for hairbreadth escapes with Millican Dalton. In years to come, they could have climbed Castle Crag with their grandchildren; and told tales of the eccentric old man in a Tyrolean hat, who lived in the woods and taught them all they knew about the fells.
That journey across the Channel may well have been their first outside the county. If they left seeking glory, it wasn’t what they found. Across the fields of Flanders, they faced men just like themselves. Farm workers, colliers, shopkeepers, railwaymen, butchers and miners. Ordinary blokes with simple aspirations and little sway or interest in world affairs. The kind who care for family and friends and a beer or two on a Friday night; all sent to the slaughter for the blind folly of oligarchs.
Deep down, they knew it too: on Christmas Eve, 1914, men on both sides put down their rifles and climbed over the barricades to trade jokes, swap cigarettes and play football. Bloke-ish things that ordinary fellers do. For a few fleeting hours, a bunch of soldiers at the centre of a brutal conflict, did what Millican Dalton had done all his life. They defied the expectations of others and stayed true to themselves. In the dark heart of No Man’s Land, a brief candle of humanity shone very brightly. And that, forever, is a Christmas message worth repeating.
For detailed direction for this walk, visit Walk Lakes
For more on Millican Dalton, I recommend Matthew Entwistle’s book, Millican Dalton A Search for Romance & Freedom