The ‘unlikely lad’ who built Dalesdown

Children’s evangelist David Iliffe died recently, but his legacy lives on in the West Sussex landscape…and beyond. Clive Price reports

A place of retreat where children can advance – that’s the roots of Dalesdown, the popular conference and activity centre that commands breathtaking views of the West Sussex landscape.

And it was set up by ‘an unlikely lad’.

The memory of founder David Iliffe was celebrated there recently by more than 300 friends and family. They were attending a thanksgiving event for this unusual pioneer, who died aged 84 on 14 March.

It was 1991 when David snapped up a dilapidated old school, and a charity donated the purchase price. Hard work and prayer transformed a mouse-infested, unheated shell into a quality conference facility and a home for children’s camps.

Like the centre he founded, David had a shaky start. He began his working life with a stutter, no experience of public speaking and saw kids as ‘a nuisance’ – not ideal for a children’s pioneer.

But he ended up working tirelessly to promote children as a priority in church and society. People from across the UK – and beyond – will remember taking part in his West Sussex camps as children.

David was born in 1928 at the ‘city of steel’, Sheffield. His widow Wendy credits his Yorkshire background as giving him “quick-witted humour, a natural gift for storytelling and plain speaking determination.”

But it was listening to a children’s evangelist that propelled him into his main work.

The couple married in 1960, also the year David started his own children’s camps. “Even today, people still talk about those early camps,”said Wendy. “Children were still children in the 60s. There was a sense of wonder.”

David and Wendy moved to Wick, Littlehampton, in 1966. They became active members of Wickbourne Chapel, now the Wickbourne Centre. Hundreds attended Sunday school, a precursor to the many that use the centre today.

In the late 70s, David and Wendy moved to Angmering. He formed the network of independent children’s workers ‘Children Worldwide’. Dalesdown was developed in the early 90s.

David had nurtured links with churches in Latvia, just emerging from the struggles of its Communist past. He helped set up an equivalent of Dalesdown there in 2001.

The Iliffes moved to High Salvington 20 years ago. They became regular worshippers at Worthing Tabernacle, and more recently, Parkside Evangelical Church, Littlehampton.

Sadly, a series of strokes over the years ended with David being diagnosed with vascular dementia. He moved into Nightingale Nursing Home, Littlehampton, three years ago, where he died of an infection.

In a time when rest homes come under scrutiny and criticism, Wendy has only good things to say about Nightingale. “They have a genuine warmth towards the residents,” she said. “They have a natural love for the elderly.”

David has left two grown-up children, Jonathan and Judith, and five grandchildren. He’s also left many ‘disciples’ who have gone on to work with children and families.

Among them is Liz Burt, who spoke at the thanksgiving service. She summed up the help he gave to her schools ministry, Splash: “David was there, right at the beginning.”

Clive Price is a media consultant to companies and charities. For more information on Dalesdown, visit

Peace of the action

It might be tucked away in a tranquil setting, but Dalesdown deals with a non-stop volley of events through the year.

A strong dedicated team carries on where David Iliffe left off. They’re leading the annual camps this summer – One Way, History Makers and Encounter – offering age-specific programmes with fun and teaching.

‘I showed up as a young leader for Dalesdown Camps 16 years ago,’ said Camps Director Sarah Covington. ‘They’re just so good, I keep coming back!’

Managed by Jo and Richard Jackson, Dalesdown is also a busy conference and activity centre hosting day and residential visits for schools and churches, alongside retreats and other activities. ‘The place is wonderful and I just feel so looked after,’ said one visitor.

‘It’s great to see Dalesdown being used by such a wide variety of groups, with such varied needs,’ said Jo, ‘and seeing God minister faithfully to each of them as they find that sense of space and time.’

Churches and schools have frequented Dalesdown for years, yet still new groups discover it for the first time. ‘The story of Dalesdown is extraordinary,’ said Richard. ‘It’s a story of the outpouring of God’s grace. And it’s a privilege to be part of it.’

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