RECEIVING an invitation to Buckingham Palace has long been regarded as clear recognition of success.

But for Hampshire based charity Wessex Heartbeat, the hour and a half trip to the nation's capital today marks just the start of what could be its biggest accomplishment.

In the presence of the Earl and Countess of Wessex and invited guests, Heartbeat will launch a £3.5m fundraising drive to turn Southampton General Hospital's cardiac unit into the leading heart treatment and education centre in Europe.

For the two former civil servants who have had their finger on the charity's pulse since its inception, these are exciting times.

Chief executive Alan Blair was recruited to set up the charity 13 years ago - on a three-year basis. In 1992, he signed up former colleague and friend Pete Wickham to be its fundraising manager. Alan, 57, said: "We've managed to raise £8.5m since 1992 and now we want to raise £3.5m plus our annual £1m in the next two years.

"The Wessex Cardiac Unit is already one of the most eminent heart centres in the UK - the only one offering paediatric and adult care. By adding the educational and research facilities, we hope to make it one of Europe's leading centres. It's going to be fantastic."

On the back of last week's successful Saints/Wessex Heartbeat Golf Classic and Ball, which raised more than £60,000, Heartbeat has had a healthy start to the year.

Celebrities including Des Lynam, cricketer Robin Smith and TV's Esther Rantzen will help the Earl and Countess of Wessex launch the Heartbeat campaign.

Planning permission for the new centre, sitting on top of a three-floor extension of the General, has already been granted.

As well as state-of-the-art equipment, the centre will include 50 extra beds, 12 emergency care beds, two new theatres, a day centre doubling the cardiac staff to 800, and a lecture theatre. It should open in 2006.

Pete, 58, from Hedge End, said: "In the past, certain patients, who don't need it, have been moved to intensive care high dependency wards.

"That means people cannot get always into intensive care wards. We hope this facility will do away with the waiting list."

Dr Tony Salmon, of the cardiac unit, believes Wessex Heartbeat is now a fundamental part of the hospital.

He said: "It has been difficult to get state-of-the-art equipment as the amount of funding is limited. Heartbeat has changed that."

Echo thanked for its support

WESSEX Heartbeat was targeted to raise £3m in its first three years. In 1994 it was decided to make the charity permanent.

Current figures show Heartbeat raises £900,000 a year towards specialist heart equipment and maintaining Heartbeat Rotary House in Tremona Road - a facility for families to stay while a relative is being treated.

More than 6,000 people have stayed at the house since 1995 and later this year the charity plans to double it, in a half-a-million-pound expansion.

The charity's six staff have already overseen a £1m refurbishment of the cardiac paediatric ward and the purchase of a 3-D Echo cardiography machine.

Alan Blair said: "The Echo has been crucial in our success.

"Because of the coverage, everyone saw us and has decided to support us."