Lake District Caves – Wild Camping

Spending the night underground in one of the Lake District caves might scare the bejesus out of most people. But, if you’re in the 3 per cent who’s blood starts to tingle, who’s adrenaline starts to flow at the thought of the adventure of wild camping in a hole in the rock under a mountain then read on.

Outside Millican Daltons cave
Outside Millican Dalton’s cave

Sleeping underground in Lake District caves

I take Kath, Nicky and Tracy (who I met in the car park) into the wild, leaving their everyday life and civilisation behind, to camp in a cave deep in Borrowdale in the Lake District National Park.

Thinking up expeditions for adventure seekers can be tricky. All I do is follow my dreams, I want to have fun in my job. I love wild camping so spending the night outdoors, miles from the hustle and bustle of the world not only amazes me. It invigorates me, calms me, settles my mind and relieves stress.

Only The Brave

Every month I deliver a wild camping experience that differs from the last. There’s a new one you can enjoy each of the 12 months of the year. This is one of those events. Camping in a cave was on my list from day one, and two of this group’s members were always going to be with me.

Mining in the Lake District

There are several caves in Lakeland. Most have been blown into the ground using dynamite. However, some have even been dug using a pick. Heating the rock makes it brittle and easier to break; like the Seven Dwarfs were doing in Snow White! Hey ho.

All the Lakeland caves are mines actually, a search for riches. Lead, zinc, banite and tin – veins of minerals pushed up through cracks in the mountains millions of years ago. Because of this, Lake District caves are quite easy to spot. Spoil, waste from the dig, spilling out of the hole in the ground is easily seen. However, as they are mostly now hidden with trees you have to be pretty close by to find them.

Tonight’s accommodation is such a cave; there’s a lot of slate spoil as there is a lot of cave.

Choosing a cave to camp in

Mining has been going on for hundreds of years in the Cumbria, and there are many well-known sites. Honister Slate Mine is the only working mine left in England. You can visit, even go on a tour. However, it’s not the big holes and tunnels we’re seeking. We need a hole underground big enough for a few of us to camp the night.

Cathedral Cavern
Cathedral Cavern

Cathedral Cavern might have been a contender but for the increased chance that we would find a bunch of teenagers there who might spoil the experience with it not feeling so wild and remote. It’s a beautiful site, especially with Hodge Close so nearby. There’s a real sense of past activity, historic and eerie but notfor us this time.

The National Trust owns nearly half of the National Park, and most of it is kept pristine including the caves. Allowing anyone to wander in, and advertising the fact on their member’s website, creates the possibility of a mess. I’ve stayed in our cave before and just recently as well to check on the standards: nothing but the best accommodation for my clients.

Millican Dalton

Our ‘Cave Hotel’ was inhabited before. For 50 years, eccentric Lakeland Mountain Guide Millican Dalton occupied this place throughout the Summer. He would take groups out climbing, walking and canoeing on the Derwent all as part of his ‘Camping Holiday’ that he advertised in Keswick.

Millican Dalton The Professor of Adventure
Millican Dalton – The Professor of Adventure

He was known to have said that the outdoors was a cure (not the cause) of tuberculosis, rheumatism and neurasthenia (chronic fatigue syndrome or M.E. today)! Millican left London at the age of 36, buying an acre of land in Essex where he lived in a wooden shack he built himself. Soon after, he gave up his stressful position in fire insurance to become a mountain guide. Sounds like he was suffering from CFS himself!

Wild camping underground

New Bridge over the River Derwent
New Bridge over the River Derwent

We set off from the Scafell Hotel and through Rosthwaite and up by the River Derwent into the wood. Only a couple of kilometres away is an excavation, which clambering through, leads you up the Castle Crag hillside to a small wet and boggy hole in the Crag, I’m happy to announce to the girls that we will not be staying here!

Mines on Castle Crag
Mines on Castle Crag

Just a bit further and we find Millican’s Summer home.

Wild camping in a cave

Lake District caves
Lake District caves

I’m here to teach them a little about wild camping, I don’t do a bad job, part of which must come first and involves an orange bag and a small shovel, but that can wait for another article.

Sleeping in Millican Dalton Cave Hotel
Sleeping in Millican Dalton’s Cave Hotel

Once that’s out of the way we find a bed. Then we rearrange the stones that have fallen from the ceiling over the years into flat pads. We place our ground and sleeping mats down. I advise the girls to lie down for a few minutes and roll over to test and adjust, make sure you’ll be comfortable all night.

Cooking in the cave

We take with us a Gas Alpkit stove and my alcohol set up, boil up some water and discuss dried food, boil in the bag pouches, army rations and compare how convenient they all are at altitude, on cold nights or in caves. The nettle curry, by the way, was boring but filled and warmed me.

Cooking supper in Millican Dalton's cave hotel
Cooking supper in Millican Dalton’s cave hotel

You have to be careful lighting fires in caves; someone told me that’s why there are two cast-iron signs are bolted to the outside, some numpties lit a fire and scorched the ceiling, bringing down some loose rock. Two hundred years ago they might have had a career!

It’s 12c in the cave, and I sit comfortably for an hour in my T-shirt. It drops a couple of degrees, gets dark, 10 o’clock soon comes. We retreat to our sleeping bags and bed down.

Sleeping in Millican Dalton’s cave hotel

You’ll be surprised one day how comfortable you can get sleeping on volcanic rocks that have fallen from the ceiling of Lake District caves.

cave camping lake district
Camp in Millican Dalton’s cave

I never sleep very well anyway, and I’m awake every hour, seemed like the girls didn’t do too bad.

Looking out of a Lake District cave
Looking out of a Lake District cave

Next morning, early, the sun streams in through the large opening and the cuckoo calls over the water pouring over the edge of the cave from the downpour yesterday.

We’ve survived!

Breakfast in a cave
Breakfast in a cave

As the girls pack, I boil some water, and we sit around our dining area to porridge.

I have a scout around for bits of litter, but it’s surprisingly tidy—what a beautiful place to stay for the night. I’m happy to say each of my companions confirm their agreement, and we set off down the fell-side to meet the river and head off rather lazily back to what people call ‘civilisation’.


Thanks to Kath, Nicky and Tracy for making this a great Lakeland adventure.

If you would like to buy the biography of ‘The Professor of Adventure’ Millican Dalton who lived in this cave you can find it on Amazon here.

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