Colonel Edward Bolitho spoke for many when he said that although his life had been spent in Cornwall he had never ventured "this far north".
The Lord Lieutenant of Cornwall was speaking at an unveiling ceremony for the Europa Nostra Grand Prix award for conservation at Poundstock Gildhouse.
The Grade I listed medieval meeting place, which has been used as a poor house, schoolroom and parish hall, is one of the oldest surviving buildings in Britain to have remained in continual community use for more than 500 years. Beating off stiff competition from prestigious projects across Europe, the coveted prize was announced by Europa Nostra president and world-renowned tenor Placido Domingo in Lisbon.
This month's ceremony in Cornwall was meant as a way of thanking all those in the community who dedicated years of their time to the project. Praising the team responsible, Edward Bolitho said: "I was born in Penzance and have known Cornwall all my life – but I have to confess I have never been this far north.
"This is a remarkable achievement and all those involved should be justly proud of their contribution. I hope that through this award greater focus will be put on Poundstock and encourage more people to visit this remarkable building in this lovely part of Cornwall."
Despite its Grade 1 status, the cob and timber Gildhouse, which is believed to date from the early-1500s, began to fall into disrepair several years ago, with its use limited to occasional coffee mornings and jumble sales. Recognising its fragile state, the parochial church council of adjacent St Winwaloe Church decided to act.
Tim Dingle – who with his wife Sandy has spearheaded the project – explained that he began the ball rolling by putting in an enquiry to the Heritage Lottery Fund's offices in London. By coincidence his call was picked up by Ian Saltern. The conversation went something like this...
Tim: I'd like some information as to whether our restoration project might be suitable for an HLF grant.
Ian: Where are you calling from?
Ian: Which part of Cornwall?
Tim: North Cornwall.
Ian: Oh, where in North Cornwall?
Tim: Near Bude.
Ian: Where exactly?
Tim: It's a very small place. You wouldn't know it.
Ian: Try me.
Ian: Well, it may surprise you to learn that most of my ancestors, going back centuries, are buried in Poundstock churchyard.
That was back in 2000. Since then, Ian – who is an author and historian – has moved back to live in nearby Stratton and became part of the team working on the Gildhouse's restoration. As well as its architectural value, Mr Saltern said the structure is an important symbol of the 1549 Prayerbook Rebellion, when thousands of Cornish people – including St Winwaloe vicar Simon Morton – were put to death for their beliefs.
The Gildhouse Community's planning and fundraising programme succeeded in gaining a £360,000 HLF grant.
Architects Jonathan Rhind were commissioned by Poundstock Parish Council to oversee the repairs and improvements to increase accessibility and practical use, as well as securing the sustainable use of the building in the long term. The work was carried out by specialist conservators Carrek.
"It has been a pleasure and a privilege to work on this delightful building," said Mr Rhind. "It was built for the community and what has been so special about the project was that the success of the restoration was down to the enthusiasm and dedication of the community."
Originally built by the Trebarfoote, Penfound and Calmady families, the Gildhouse is situated in a secluded hollow beside a small stream. It is regarded by historians as the finest example in Cornwall of a late medieval church house. The restoration attracted the support of a number of agencies and individuals, including Poundstock Parish Council, North Cornwall District Council, Heritage Lottery Fund, Sensory Trust, English Heritage, Cornwall Council, Duchy of Cornwall, Alan Evans Memorial Trust and The Skinners Company.
Sandy Dingle travelled to Portugal in June to receive the "grand prix" on behalf of her community and the architects. It was presented at the Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon by European culture commissioner Androulla Vassiliou and Placido Domingo. Of the 28 winning projects from 15 European countries, six were named "grand prix" laureates as 2012's most outstanding heritage achievements.
Back in Poundstock – kneading dough in the Gildhouse kitchen for the celebration of "feast and fun" – Sandy reflected on the experience.
"Placido Domingo is one of my heroes, so it was a special occasion for so many reasons," she said. "To go from this community and to be presented with this amazing accolade has made all of us in Poundstock realise just how precious this building is, not just to Cornwall but to the world."
Turning to a group of Tudor-costumed schoolchildren present, she added: "This is your heritage and it will be your job to take care of it in the future."
Europa Nostra's judges sang the praises of the little village in the top right-hand corner of Cornwall, piling on the superlatives.
One jury member enthused: "Among the many sophisticated and palatial projects we were invited to consider, we were excited to discover this modest but meticulously restored example of the vernacular. We have unqualified admiration for the traditional techniques adopted in giving the cob walls, windows and timber-cruck roof a renewed lease of life. It is a subtle and sensitive renovation. The architect's philosophy of 'just enough' shone through with imperceptible and crafted repair merging seamlessly with appropriate and measured new work to accommodate disabled access and facilities."
Commissioner Vassiliou added: "I would like to warmly congratulate the people of Poundstock for reminding us of our wonderfully rich and varied heritage that we should never take for granted. It is in our trust for future generations."
Speaking at the unveiling feast, HLF South West committee chairman Simon Timms said that for a small parish, with only 800 parishioners, the restoration had been an enormous achievement. Echoing Edward Bolitho's enthusiasm, he said: "Wow! There's no other word for it. All of the work has been carried out with a great lightness of touch. It's here for us all to enjoy – so don't keep it to yourselves, tell your friends."
In addition to community gatherings, the Gildhouse is available for weddings and other events. It is open every Wednesday for anyone who wants to find out more about its history. For more information, visit: www.poundstockgildhouse.co.uk