Paul Vallely: The importance of being Sir Ernest

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The Independent Online

It's the kind of thing most of us think about, but never do. "I don't know why it's taken me until now to write and say thank you," the letter began. It arrived two years after the event. Here was a man who had been brooding for some time, as we all do. But what makes Ernest Hall different from the rest of us is that he actually does, albeit belatedly, what the rest of us somehow don't get round to. It is the story of his life.

Sir Ernest Hall is a successful failure. And how. He was born into a poor Lancashire mill family and grew up in the back streets of Bolton. But when he was eight, a visitor came to his school with a gramophone and some classical records and a passion was ignited. He ended up at the Royal Manchester College of Music from which he graduated with a major prize for composition.

The trouble was that one of his pianist contemporaries there was the genius John Ogden, whose playing overawed Hall into giving up the piano himself. He got a job in textiles, became a millionaire as part of the Carnaby Street boom, and then moved into property, building an empire that he eventually sold for £40m.

But Sir Ernest was not a man for an easy retirement. He used the money to buy the disused complex which had once been the world's biggest carpet factory, at Dean Clough, in Halifax, and turned it into what he calls "a practical Utopia". It now houses 200 companies employing 4,000 people in a range of activities that includes the Halifax Building Society, a major insurer, a health service trust, two theatre companies, the Northern Ballet, the Henry Moore Sculpture Trust studio, eight exhibition spaces, a radio station, and 20 rent-free workshops for resident artists.

Sir Ernest's thank-you letter had been prompted by a piece I'd written about the posthumous premiere of Ted Hughes's final play at Dean Clough. With it he enclosed a box set of Chopin's piano works, which he began to record in his 70th year (he's now 73), and an invitation to meet. What prompted me to ring him, a year later, was an overheard remark in a restaurant.

The Wagon, at Birtle, between Bury and Rochdale, has recently been opened by David Watson, the former chef at Dean Clough. One Sunday lunchtime I heard a customer asking Watson's wife, Lorraine, whether she had heard about Ernest and Lanzarote.

Having added the piano concerti of Bartok and Busoni to his recordings, Sir Ernest has embarked on a new project, refurbishing a derelict finca which was once one of the most important houses on the island. It is to become a holiday retreat where artists can work and relax at the same time.

Sir Ernest is bubbling with enthusiasm when we meet for lunch at the Design House restaurant at Dean Clough. He has had a big billing. It's hard to meet anyone of consequence in the North who doesn't know him. And everyone speaks fulsomely of his encouraging qualities. "He's relentlessly positive, though not in an American way," one composer forewarns me. "He leaves you feeling you can do absolutely anything," says an artist. "Just talking to him is like drinking champagne," says another, "without the hangover."

"Lanzarote is one of the most under-rated places I know," the dapper septuagenarian begins. But before long he is on to architecture, education, wine, the lottery, volcanos and, inevitably, music. He is an autodidact who peppers the conversation with unaffected references to poets such as Goethe, Shakespeare, William Blake, Hugh MacDiarmid and Tony Harrison, as well as mystics and visionaries including Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhardt, Bernard Shaw and Picasso.

Money means nothing, he says: "The lives of the rich are vacuous, their interests negligible. They can be the most boring people in the world." This is a man who wrote a book called How to be a Failure and Succeed. When he talks of "how we can realise Blake's dream of making England 'an Envied Storehouse of Intellectual Riches'", just for a moment you do not doubt it. "My life," he concludes on a curious offbeat, "has been a preparation for now." I suppose that's true of all of us.

Wilmslow, home of the new easyJet set

Over on the other side of the Pennines, they're off to the sun for far baser reasons. According to Costa del Sol estate agents, some 12,000 properties were built in Marbella last year. Of these, 8,400 were bought by Britons - more than half of them from Cheshire. So much so that one Puerto Banus agency has opened a branch in Wilmslow.

Wilmslow forms a golden triangle with Alderley Edge and Tatton, which was last week named by Barclays Private Clients as the richest place in Britain, ahead of Kensington and Chelsea. I half thought about going along to Hoopers in Wilmslow to quiz some of the ladies who lunch about the Cheshire Set's latest whim. But the local paper saved me a journey. It's the easyJet and BMI Baby flights from Liverpool and Manchester that are the explanation, making Marbella easier to get to than London or the Lake District.

"It attracts young, good-looking people who drive around in Ferraris, looking glamorous," the paper quotes a model called Miki as saying. "The shops are fantastic, too - all the designer names - and there's always a familiar face from Cheshire to chat to." Nothing like getting away from it all.

Compliments to the chef

My reference above to David Watson's new restaurant, the Wagon at Birtle, was made with some trepidation. Readers may recall my last venture into the world of Michelin-starred cooking - at Juniper in Altrincham - which ended up with me inviting the chef home to lunch. Watson is a chef of similar calibre. He won the same Michelin accolade when he cooked at the renowned Pool Court in Wharfedale.

Now that he has opened his own place, his skill is undiminished but the style a good deal more informal. The menu is short but spans classics such as tongue in sherry sauce to a waggish Bury black pudding tempura-style and the best rare roast beef ever. Lorraine Watson didn't even blink when my three-year-old was sick all over the table. But that's another story.