The pile we call home

It took a collier's son to rescue Wynyard Hall from decay. Now it is a glittering tribute to entrepreneurial can-do
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On a page in the Halls' photograph album are three black-and-white pictures of the houses where the family grew up. The first is a three- bedroom semi in Northumberland, rented from the Coal Board. The second is a modern Leech house built for the first post-war wave of home-owners; the third is a substantial Victorian terrace in Sunderland. It looks like the progression of a Fifties family made good.

But it is a picture of the current family home that establishes the spectacular rise of Sir John Hall, as he now is. It is not a house at all, but one of the most splendid stately homes of north-east England, Wynyard Hall.

The Palladian mansion sits in 500 acres of parkland, grazed by deer and sheep. Ancient trees are testimony to the unchanged landscape. Beyond are a further 7,000 acres that Sir John owns. "This is my territory," he says proudly.

Sir John and his wife, Lady Mae, bought Wynyard in its death throes from the Marquis of Londonderry, whose family made its fortune from the Durham coalfield. But there is no triumphalism that a collier's son has taken over the coal baron's fiefdom. Instead, Sir John is full of respect for the Londonderrys' achievements. He sees them as entrepreneurs of their time, just as he is of ours.

The Halls bought the estate in May 1987 with the proceeds of the business venture that changed their lives. Sir John was the man who built the Gateshead MetroCentre, the largest out-of-town retail and leisure park in Europe. "The MetroCentre was our baby," Lady Mae says, "but this place gets you right here," patting her heart.

Originally they had no intention of living in it. The house was to be the corporate headquarters for their property company, Cameron Hall, and the land outside the park would be developed into a business park, a village of private houses, three golf courses, a hotel and country club. That broader plan is well under way with Samsung, the Korean components manufacturer, being the first company to sign up for 400 acres and about 3,000 jobs.

The plan for the house changed when Lady Mae wandered through the beautiful, empty rooms and wondered why they were not planning to occupy some themselves. Now the Halls live in one wing, the size of a large country house, and the business uses the palatial rooms in the main hall.

When they arrived, it was hard hats only indoors. Ivy had crept through broken window panes in the bedrooms and the parkland was a wilderness. They set to with vigour.

Rupert Lord, the man who redesigned Cliveden, was brought in to restore the house and hall. Eighteen months and pounds 4m later it is a spectacular vision of gilded cornices, stained-glass ceilings, marble columns and ormolu chandeliers.

The Halls' private home is immaculate, but manageable. Their picture collections hang on the walls, their china sits on the mantlepieces. "It is very liveable in," says Sir John. "It feels like home."

Outside, they have had to adapt to gardening on a different scale. "You cannot go out with a spade and plant a few flowers," Sir John says. "You have to plant trees, 300 at a time. It takes men and machinery." He has just returned from a tree-buying spree in Italy.

The next project is the walled garden, which will be formally landscaped with lawns, a fountain and flowers. "Can you imagine putting a herbaceous border around a football pitch?" his wife asks. "That's the equivalent of what we are doing."

Beyond lies the rest of the Wynyard estate. The first of the 1,000 houses have already gone up, built by Ideal Homes in a variety of vernacular styles around a village green with a duck pond. It is reminiscent of the Cadbury village at Bourneville. But this is a late 20th-century development. Down the lane, on plots costing anything up to pounds 100,000, several local business people have built their own large American-style houses around the first golf course, which opens in September. The pub comes next, then some shops in the old estate workshops. It is hard to remember that we are in the grip of a property recession.

Sir John points out that 92 per cent of the population are in work in the North-east and they have money to spend, as he proved with the MetroCentre. He cannot understand why the Government has lost faith in owner-occupation. "We need to get cranes on the skyline," he says.

Sir John has officially retired from his property company, now run by his son Douglas, and is concentrating on his other big venture, Newcastle United Football Club. He is 62. What will happen to the Wynyard development when he goes? "I hope there will always be a Hall in it," he says.