A COMMUNITY centre is to rise from the ashes one year after being left gutted in a fire.

The Istead Rise Community Centre, in Worcester Close, has not been used since the night of March 20 last year when intruders caused a blaze when raiding the centre's fruit machine.

This incident left hundreds of people without a meeting place for their various clubs and community groups.

But a fire repair specialist firm today began a 22-week renovation project costing £600,000 to restore the centre to its former glory.

Centre secretary Colin Ritchie said: "After a year of hard work by the Istead Rise Community Association's management committee, and many frustrating setbacks, a contractor has at last been appointed.

"Many members of the association have been left with no amenities, such as sport groups and Age Concern. Many events had to be cancelled at short notice."

Since the fire, Istead Rise's Age Concern meetings have been cancelled and the Istead Rise Gymnastics Club has been based at St John's School, Rochester Road, Gravesend.

Sheila Hobbs is the secretary for the club, which is attended by more than 50 children aged from four to 15.

She said: "We are absolutely delighted we won't have to wait too much longer to return to our original home.

"We have been lucky the school has been so kind and generous and we are really grateful to them."

Meanwhile Istead Rise Bowls Club, which has more than 50 members, has been forced to travel as far afield as Swanscombe Leisure Centre, in Craylands Lane, for its weekly matches.

Club chairman Brian Walters said: "We will be looking forward to getting back there and we are hopeful it will be ready for the start of the new bowls season in September.

"Hopefully the surface will be better than the old centre.

"As you can imagine, it needs to be perfectly flat and even. We can't wait to get in there and test it out."

The new centre will include a function room which will double-up as a sports hall.

A licensed bar, toilets and a shower will also be installed.

Ian Cannings, managing director of Apex Holdings, which is rebuilding the centre, said: "We are really pleased to be able to bring this valued community resource back into use.

"A huge number of the population have been affected since the centre has been out of action.

"We will be working with the community association and residents to ensure we hand them back an excellent community centre later this year."

He added: "We will re-fit the centre to its original specification, except it will look more modern."

Members of the Istead Rise Community Association, which owns the hall, have been meeting at the Memorial Hall, Lewis Road, Istead Rise, since the fire.

The new centre is being funded by insurance money from the fire.