Friday 13 August 2010

Millican Dalton...Professor of Adventure

Millican Dalton demonstrates his bomb proof belaying technique.

We are coming to the end of an era in the history of rock-climbing. First there was the gully era, then that of aretes, followed by the steep faces, until the era of bold, overhang­ing and sometimes loose rock. Today bolts, climbing walls and competitions are clearly going to put an end to the era of risk and adventure in the history of the development of the sport. We are in a transitional stage. It seems a good time to look back on the life of a character who epitomises the spirit of anarchic fun to be had in the outdoors before the sport turned away from nature and became intensely po-faced.

I first met him on Pencoed Pillar, the Hard V Diff that gets you to the narrow summit of the Matterhorn of Mid-Wales. He was chuckling to himself as we sat there looking across the cwm to Cader Idris and Norman was saying, "Brilliant line, crap route." I glanced behind Norman to the lean grinning figure with the pointed beard and broad-brimmed hat with a pheasant's feather. His obviously home­made clothes were of leather, like his face, and his heavily nailed boots were sockless. He sucked on his Woodbine as if it were oxygen."What did you expect?" I whispered to Norman. "You're talking about a route put up by a Professor of Adventure who was noted for fresh air and fun."
The leather man lit another Woodbine.

"Not that Millican Dalton character," Norman shouted, "the one dressed like Robinson Crusoe? No wonder this route's more mud than rock. That eccentric guy who lived in a cave in Borrowdale? That's where Sumner should be, for giving this route three stars!"

I glanced over Norman's shoulder, but the Alpine gnome had disappeared. It was to be the first of several uncanny meetings over the following years as each visit to the Lakes included a search for signs of Millican Dalton. In 1903 he'd climbed Pencoed Pillar at the age of 36, just after he'd packed in the London office life and moved in to a hut in Epping Forest which was to remain his winter home until he died at the age of 80 soon after it burned down. At first he spent his summers in a tent beside Shepherds Crag, then he moved into the cave under Castle Crag which is still known locally as `Millican Dalton's Cave'.

My next encounter with his spirit was in the twinkling eyes of Harry Griffin, a man who still refers to the Lake District as 'the district'. "Yes, I used to bump into him before the war in Rosth­waite, coming out of Plaskett's with his shopping. He'd hang it from the crossbar of his bike with the ropes and bits of camping equipment. He used his bike like a wheelbarrow. He was a genial, kindly man who would be glad to talk about anything. Born in Cumberland, of course, at Alston. Do you know it? No? You don't know the district very well, do you?

Well, I'd seen his picture in Keswick before I first met him.He had posters in the Abrahams' photographic studio and in Arden's bookshop advertising himself as 'Professor of Adventure' offering 'Camping Holidays, Mountain Rapid Shooting, Rafting, Hair-Breadth Escapes'. He can't have been the first professional guide in the Lakes because there was Gaspard, the Dauphine guide, at the Wasdale Head before the First World War, but he'd take people up the Needle or into Dove Nest Caves. That was his favourite place. He wrote a guide about it for the Fell and Rock Journal."

Millican aboard the 'Rogue Herries' on the Derwent.

Millican Dalton climbed new routes there in 1897, although they're no longer recorded since rockfall has rendered the place unsafe. His friends called this 'the rock gym' because they could practise so many different tech­niques within '150 feet square'. Yes, they trained, took their skills seriously in order to do daft things in all weathers on real rock.

"I've written most of what I know of Millican Dalton in Still The Real Lakeland. Now you will mention that if you use it, won't you, because I think it's only fair, you know." It was obvious that in this 80 year old teaser the spirit of Millican Dalton was not dead.

Meeting Alan Hankinson, the respected historian of Lakeland climbing soon after this, at the opening of an exhibition in Cockermouth, was pure luck. I was introduced to 'Hank', as he's apparently known locally. At a mention of the name Millican Dalton Hank's big white eyebrows suddenly shot up and he fixed me with a historian's stare. "Did you know", he said, "that Ken Russell wanted to make a film about him with Spike Milligan in the part?" We both burst out laughing. Here once again was that warmth generated by Millican Dalton's ghost.

"He's my favourite local character", the white-haired historian confessed. "He was vegetarian, teetotal and a pacifist, and in 1942 he wrote to Churchill from his cave in Castle Rock, asking him to stop the war."

In his writing about Millican, Hankinson emphasises the balance between a fun-lover living off the land and a serious thinker who carefully considered his own life-style. Millican's Quaker education led to an admiration for George Bernard Shaw and then, at the age of about 30, a life of self-suffi­ciency exchanging hand-made camping equipment for food and adventures for cigarettes. He preferred to avoid money. He slept under an eiderdown and knew where the best hazel nuts grew beside the River Derwent.

His clients were instructed in both knots and philosophy. They often came back for more. One of them was Mabel Barker, who eventually wrote a memoir in the Fell and Rock Journal. Alan Hankinson had hinted that her nephew living in Caldbeck had family photo albums. There Millican Dalton came to life again in amusing family folklore.

Mabel Barker was a teacher who, in 1913, hired tents from the Professor of Adventure for her pupils coming up from Saffron Walden for a camping holiday in Borrowdale. Millican offered to take them climbing and Mabel too. So began the climbing career of the first woman to climb Central Buttress on Scafell. She eventually came to know Millican well during her life running a school in Caldbeck. Now Arnold Barker, her brother's son, was showing me his parents' wedding photograph. It was tiny, the size of the original negative. I had an enlargement made for him and could see Mabel, at the back of Rosthwaite church, rope over her shoulders, standing next to her brother, with rucksack straps pulling back his tweed jacket.

His new wife was sneaking a hand into his pocket. Next to her Millican Dalton, the best man, stood fag in mouth, rope under his leather jacket and full sack on his back, itching to take them all climbing. The night before, Mabel had camped with the bride beside Shepherds Crag, whilst the groom had slept in the cave with the best man.. Millican, Mabel wrote, 'cooked the wedding breakfast — a chicken boiled in a billy can — in the slate caves, and we spent a happy day climbing in and around the quarries'.

"Mabel always used to say," her nephew remembered with a wry smile, "that Millican got dressed up for the wedding. He put socks on, but he sat down on the grass outside the church and took them off again straight after­wards."
The official Fell and Rock obituary reveals that Millican `somewhat scandalised his generation by introducing mixed camping tours'. In her memoir Mabel Barker wrote about the Professor leading just such a camping trip to the Zillertal in 1922 when 'five of us — four women and Millican — got caught in a blizzard and benighted high up at glacier level above the Alpenrose, and spent a very uncomfortable night out in the snow. 

A violent thunderstorm added excitement to the situation, the lightning striking on our ice-axes, while drops of water on our hair shone strangely, so that for once at least we wore halos. Perhaps we deserved them, for though drenched to the skin before we gave up the attempt to get down, and all very cold, we sang songs and told stories through the long night, and nobody "woke up dead"'

Her nephew produced Mabel's photo album of that 1922 Alpine trip. It reveals the sockless Professor, fag in mouth, leading his clients across glaciers like a Pied Piper. They are remarkable period pictures which have never been published and they catch the infectious fun that seems to be running along the rope between them.

An unexpected meeting with Millican occurred in Little Langdale Post Office. It is run by Marion, the young daugh­ter of Vince Veevers, best known as the unintentional author of a popular Severe called Ardus on Shepherds Crag. He'd recorded it as Audus, to preserve the maiden name of his new wife, Elizabeth. "He always did have terrible handwrit­ing", Marion says. "Just before he was killed he'd been talking about reclimbing some of the routes he did with Jim Birkett. He was still very fit." Vince Veevers, was killed in 1989 by a runaway lorry that rolled, driverless, down a lane in Shropshire where he lived.

A casual mention of the magic words 'Millican Dalton' in Marion's Post Office produced a family story from the late 1920s: "Dad had cycled to the Lakes from Bolton and was carrying his bike over Styhead to Wasdale when he saw someone climbing on Kern Knotts, so he went over to have a look. A voice called ` down, 'Can you tie a bowline?' Dad shouted up 'Yes!' Actually he couldn't. He had to ask a passing climber to show him. That was his first climb, Kern Knotts Chimney, and when he got to the top of it he met Millican Dalton holding the rope. In fact, he didn't get a chance to climb again for some time, but he was sure that he definitely wanted to take it up after that first introduction."

But where was Millican's cave? 'We could tell he was at home', Mabel wrote, 'by the blue smoke curling among the trees, easily seen from the Borrowdale road'. I searched downwards from the top of Castle Crag until, almost at the path, on the north-east corner, I found some quarries. I noted an amazingly colourful 'painted' wall to tip off Gordon Stainforth for his Lakeland book, wandered up to a big cave and hit a roadway leading up to another, in the high corner of which was a hole. This appeared to be 'The Attic', the Professor's cave. Confirmation came as I passed a wall to the outside. Unforgivably cut into the rock is Millican's now historical enigmatic message: 'Don't! Waste Words, Jump to Conclusions'.

From here the Professor took clients sailing on Der­wentwater under his famous red sails, rafting down the rapids of Borrowdale on 'Rogue Herries' made from rubbish scavenged at Grange tip, climbing and caving by candlelight in Dove Nest, tree climbing which he called 'Tree Boling', gill scrambling up Lodore Falls in spate and camping with instruction on the best woods for fire lighting, all laced with a philosophy that was actually being lived out; but you won't meet Millican's spirit of adventure any longer in his own larger cave where the litter from overnighters makes it just like any other urban quarry. You can though meet him in other people and other places in the Lakes, still, I hope.

Millican Dalton's original etched motto " Don't waste words-jump to conclusions!'

Terry Gifford©...first published in High-June-94

Millican Dalton biography