EastEnder's village hall date

ONE generation knew him as the harshly-labelled "stupid boy" of Dad's Army, while to another he is more recognisable as gentle EastEnder Derek Harkinson.

ONE generation knew him as the harshly-labelled "stupid boy" of Dad's Army, while to another he is more recognisable as gentle EastEnder Derek Harkinson.

But Ian Lavender's latest appearance was not with the Home Guard or amid the hustle and bustle of Albert Square. Instead, he helped the residents in the corner of Suffolk he has made his home celebrate the end of an eight-year project by opening their newly refurbished village hall.

A total of £340,000 has been spent installing a new kitchen, stage and dressing rooms, alongside sound and lighting systems, within the well-used hall at Woolpit, near Bury St Edmunds.

But the path to securing funding did not run smoothly. It was only after suffering a series of rejections for grant aid that villagers were finally promised the cash they had been waiting years for.

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And while money came from Community Fund, Art's Council East, Mid Suffolk District Council and Woolpit Parish Council, residents of the village also raised an astonishing £82,000 towards the cost of the refurbishment.

"I was really nice to be asked along, especially as I didn't think I should have been the one to open the hall," said Mr Lavender. "Although my wife Michele and I feel as though we have lived in Woolpit forever, we are mindful of the fact we are still newcomers - and have done absolutely nothing towards the refurbishment project.

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"I have worked in professional theatres which would have given their eye teeth to have new facilities, and we have got to make sure we use them. Otherwise, we just don't deserve to have them.

"Woolpit is our home now, and I love living in the country. I was born and bred in the city, and moved from Birmingham to Bristol to London. I realised I had spent half my life in the city, and didn't want to spend the other half there as well.

"We moved here around nine months ago from a village which was just a collection of houses. There was no shop and no post office, and you had to drive eight miles to get a pint of milk.

"But Woolpit is a place to be really proud of, with a beautiful church, lovely houses and a great history."

Mr Lavender, famed for playing Private Pike in Dad's Army, joined the EastEnders cast as Pauline Fowler's lodger Derek in 2001. He now travels from his Suffolk home to the Elstree studios at 5am each morning to begin filming.

But he described the job as "great fun," saying he would never consider a move closer to work as he no longer enjoys the rush of city life.

"I definitely made the right decision living in the country," he added. "When I visit my sons, who work in the West End, in the ten minutes it takes to walk to their offices from Oxford Circus tube I am ready to go home again, even though I am looking forward to seeing them.

"It was through Dad's Army I got to know this part of the country (as filming for the comedy largely took place in the Thetford area).

"I cannot tell you how much we actually do love living in the village. We count ourselves very lucky."

Around 350 people packed the village hall to catch a glimpse of Mr Lavender on Saturday, before taking the opportunity to look around the new improved facilities.

And everyone involved with the project said they were thrilled with the finished results.

David Cordon, chairman of the Woolpit Village Hall Committee, said: "The new facilities will be marvellous for everyone using them, especially during the Woolpit Festival and for drama productions.

"But we do have further plans for the hall, which include relaying the floor, changing the acoustics and resurfacing the car park."

As part of the refurbishment, facilities have also been added to bring the hall in line with new disability legislation. Ramps, handle bars, lifts and a hearing loop have all been installed, while toilets for the disabled are also now in place.

Roger Eburn, project leader, said: "We thought we would never get there, as getting money is so difficult, but this has been a real community effort.

"We have around 22 clubs within the village who use the hall, and I think they will all be very happy with the work that has taken place."

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