How I fell for Prue at the age of 78: Dean Clough's Sir Ernest Hall opens his heart

ONE is a successful businessman, best known for his restoration of Dean Clough Mills, Halifax. The other is a much-revered cookery doyenne.

Entrepreneur Sir Ernest Hall and chef-turned-novelist Prue Leith had been great friends for more than 20 years but then "a bolt from the sky" changed the nature of their relationship.

True love has turned the couple "into a pair of teenagers" and it is something they are proud to tell the world about.

"It just goes to prove that you can find love at any age," says Ernest, aged 78.

"People close to us had known about us for a while but why hide it? It's the most wonderful feeling," he adds, speaking from his home on the sun-drenched island of Lanzarote.

Prue, who has just celebrated her 69th birthday, agrees.

"It's true that love has no age barriers. You can find it in the afternoon of your life," she laughs.

"This time around it is just all exactly as I remembered it 30 years ago with my late husband," she adds, referring to South African writer Rayne Kruger, who died in 2002.

The couple have decided to make their relationship public following the launch of Prue's latest novel, Choral Society, about three older women "facing retirement, widowhood, wrinkles and dodgy knees – and above all, loneliness."

A theme of the book is also late-flowering love.

"There is a good bit of me in all of them," says Prue.

"I had wanted the women in my book to be in their 60s but my publishers were having none of it. My protests that 60 is the new 40 fell on deaf ears so in the end I settled for making them in their 50s. But they could really be in their 60s or 70s.

"Why is it so hard for anyone who has not yet hit the menopause to believe that anyone who has gone through it can possibly want, let alone indulge in sex?" she asks.

Ernest reveals that it was in Lanzarote that the couple fell in love.

"I was so down because my second marriage to Sarah had fallen apart and I was feeling bereft after retiring, if I am being honest.

"I felt redundant. Prue, then just a good friend, had agreed to come out and cheer me up and, to be honest, I was on the verge of cancelling because I was so low. I didn't feel I could even be bothered to show her round the island.

"But then it was like a bolt of lightning from the sky.

"I am an evangelist, though, and I never believe you are too old for anything. Life just gets better and better," he says.

"I am just as ambitious and excited about my future now as I was as a young man." Testament to this is the first volume of his autobiography, How To be A Failure And Succeed, published last year. A second volume is well under way.

"And that goes for love. Yes, I am like a teenager again in some ways," he says.

"I have flutterings in my stomach at the thought of Prue arriving at the airport. We spend as much time as we can together. We share all kinds of passions – Prue is even now beginning to love music and I love mentoring her," adds Ernest, a talent pianist who has recently completed a lifetime's ambition of recording the complete works of Chopin.

Prue agrees that absence makes the heart grow fonder.

"Because we are not living together all the time there is that rush of excitement at the prospect of seeing one another. We speak on the phone every day though."

She reveals that after being a widow for four years she was looking for companionship but never expected to find true love again.

"I had joked with friends about finding a 'walker', someone to take me out to events but also I wanted someone to be a male best friend, someone to do nothing with. Just sit around and chat. I had said 10 years older and a musician and Jewish (Ernest is only one eighth Jewish, however)," she jokes.

"When I went out so see him after his marriage break-up I never realised it would lead to love. I was certainly not looking for it.

"But hey ho, nature or Cupid or maybe hormone replacement therapy, or the combination of sun, wine and music took a hand, and to my astonishment it was all as I remembered it the first time round."

Ernest's first wife, June, (the mother of Jeremy, managing director of Dean Clough, Virginia, Vivian and Tom) died in 1996. "I was devoted to her even though we divorced," says Ernest.

He remarried in 1975 and he and Sarah have a son, Leopold. Sir Ernest says he has no plans to divorce.

"Not yet, no. It is too complicated.

"But Prue has brought love into my life again. She is the most wonderful person. We are having the most wonderful time together."

Choral Society by Prue Leith is published by Quercus.