A £2 million project to restore “the heartbeat of Helensburgh” received the Royal seal of approval last week.

Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal marked the official opening of the refurbished Drumfork Community Centre in the Churchill area of the town on Friday.

Improvement work at the new hub started around two years ago, with much of the funding coming from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity (RNRMC), the largest-ever capital investment by the organisation.

A ‘soft launch’ took place last year and the centre has been open to military personnel, their families and members of the wider community for almost three months.

Unveiling a commemorative plaque, Princess Anne told those gathered inside the Drumfork Centre: “It’s a real pleasure, as patron of the RNRMC, to see this finished.

“It has not been easy, so we will learn from this experience, and do it more efficiently next time.

READ MORE: Princess Royal officially opens new-look Drumfork community centre in Helensburgh

“Enjoy it, and make very good use of it, because, to be honest, however much you spend on a building, it is only the people who use it who make it worthwhile.

“I am perfectly certain it will be a big part of this community for many years to come.”

Pupils from local schools John Logie Baird Primary, Colgrain, St Joseph’s, Parklands and Lomond School provided a warm reception for the Princess on her visit, while members of the Police Scotland Youth Volunteers were also on hand to welcome the Queen’s only daughter to the centre which has been sited in Churchill Square for decades.

Summing up her feelings on Friday, centre manager Shelley Gilmour said: “It’s a sigh of relief and sheer pleasure, to be honest.

“A key feature of the centre is the fact that it’s not just for military personnel or their families, it’s for everyone in the community.

“This establishment was primarily put here to enhance the lives of service families but the second piece of that is integration with the full community.

“So, we’ve got to remember that and try and chip away to remove the barriers of ‘them’ and ‘us’.

“We want everyone to walk out of here with a really positive, pleasurable experience from the Drumfork community.”

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The centre is already home to new men’s mental health group Males Tales, while the local Scouts also use the facility along with craft groups, the Brew Crew and other meet-ups and events.

A soft play area is available for children – with work on a new outdoor play park set to finish later this year - and an IT hub will offer training opportunities for military spouses and members of the public.

Shelley added: “We’ve put together a plethora of activities and a timetable to start off but that will only grow and evolve with the community over time.

“For me, it’s about opening opportunities, that’s a big thing. I love to put opportunities in the way for someone to make it accessible and reachable, that’s my goal.

“Whether it’s someone coming in and using the PCs when they’ve never been online before, or trying yoga for the first time, or joining the craft group when they’ve never done knitting, if I can put that opportunity in the face of someone to make it accessible and achievable then my job is done.”

Adrian Bell, chief executive of the RNRMC, told the Advertiser that the completion of the Drumfork project is a significant moment for the local and serving community, and he hopes other naval areas now follow Helensburgh’s lead.

“It’s one of those places that is unique,” he said, “because, yes, it’s a naval community centre in one sense, but it includes the wider community and to have that sense of fusion is absolutely brilliant.

“It produces something which is different and I just wish there were more of these in other naval areas as well.

“This wasn’t just something we put money into and then said ‘crack on’, we will continue to support this because it is so important.

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“I’ve only been in this job about 15 months. I came here after about two months in this role, and I almost wept, it was looking just so awful. You think ‘are we ever going to get anywhere?’.

“It hit all sorts of snags, it was behind time, over cost, all sorts of issues; gradually we’ve eaten away at those things, and I know it took a lot longer than we had hoped.

“I know families lost it for much longer than they had expected, and I’m really sorry about that, but when you look at it today, and when you look at what it gives, it is worth it.”

He added: “In Shelley and David [Wood, chief petty officer at Drumfork] you’ve got two wonderful people leading this organisation and Shelley in particular I would call the heart and soul of this centre, without that sort of leadership these sort of things wouldn’t happen in the way that this has.”

Captain Nick Gibbons, captain of HMNB Clyde, which will soon be home to the Royal Navy’s entire submarine fleet, said: “We’re delighted to see the centre up and running. It’s a really valuable extension of the facilities we’ve got here on the Clyde.

“We’ve had a centre here for some time but it’s fair to say it was in need of a bit of a revamp. Courtesy of some very generous benefactors we’ve now got this fantastic facility so it’s an exciting day for us.

“More and more of our service families are living in the community and are part of the community so it’s important that this sort of thing becomes a shared facility.

“It’s ideal timing. Over the next few years we’re going to see more service families coming into this part of the world so somewhere where they can come and feel integrated not only as part of the service community but the wider community is very important and this facility is fundamental to that.”

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David Wood said: “It’s been a long, hard slog to get to this stage. I’ve been involved for about a year, and to see the transformation from then to what it is today is outstanding.

“The most important thing is that there’s now a central hub for the community to gather that had been seriously lacking here for a long time.

“Even in its previous guise it wasn’t very welcoming; now it’s bright, it’s nicer on the eye and it’s open to everybody.

“Every small town should be aspiring to be more community orientated.

“This project took a lot of people to get it over the line, it was four or five years in the making.

“Without a shadow of a doubt every community and every local town should have a facility that they can be proud of.

“One of the key messages is that this is just the beginning, there’s more to come as this place gets used fully.”

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Christine Stewart, who lives in Helensburgh and is a member of Naval Service Family and People Support (NSFPS), and also uses the centre regularly with community groups, said the exciting development will bring benefit to every user of the facility.

“The old building had purpose,” she said, “but it wasn’t very welcoming. It was run-down, the carpets were horrible and manky.

“Now we’ve got this fantastic, new, fresh building, and it’s so welcoming. It’s got designated managers, which is fantastic because we know it’s going to be looked after and maintained.

“I’ve lived here for 11 years and I’ve been in it more since October than I have beforehand, because it’s just so fresh and brilliant.

“There’s still that stigma that it’s a military building, but it’s not, it’s open to everybody. Word of mouth seems to be working.”

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