Ten years ago, architectural salvage meant a period fireplace or a set of shutters for your Edwardian terrace. Now it seems everything is up for grabs: from prison doors to pig feeders, from church altars to railway carriages. Sharon Amos investigates. Photographs by Adrian Fisk and Ged Murray
In-Situ Antiques is perfectly situated. The specialist in architectural salvage - the rescued features and fittings of condemned buildings - is in an area of Manchester where the wrecker's ball is a familiar sight and where a redundant church can command a pounds 1m-plus price tag for prime redevelopment.

The business resides in an old factory with smashed windows and a leaking roof and looks as if it's about to join the general dereliction. But step inside and you enter an Aladdin's cave of the most unlikely treasures. It has an eclectic mix of the antique, the eccentric and the downright awful - in the latter case a futuristic fibre-optic lamp the size of an elephant. "A white elephant at that," admits In-Situ owner Laurence Green. "It came from a bank that was being refitted, but someone somewhere will find a use for it." And that is the key to architectural salvage: it's not just about reinstating old fireplaces ripped from Victorian houses in the Fifties and Sixties, but about thinking laterally and finding new ways to re-use old materials.

Several large-scale jobs have recently filled the four floors of In-Situ Antiques to capacity. The demolition of Wigan Town Hall has yielded entire panelled rooms, circular benches from the magistrates' court and, most intriguingly, the prison doors from the court's holding cells - steel-plated oak, complete with peepholes and flaps to pass in food. It's going to take a peculiar kind of vision to work out how to re-use them, but there are interior decorators who will no doubt rise to the challenge.

In one corner, carefully protected by bubblewrap, is a dismantled church altar. "There are half-a-dozen big players in the church scene and we're trying to break into the market," says Green. You don't have to travel far to see how such an item might be used in the wider world. Via Fossa, a bar on Manchester's fashionable Canal Street, has gargoyles leering down from the walls, dividing walls made from church screens, and biblical scenes carved in stone in the entrance.

For every successful salvage mission there is always the one that got away. In-Situ partner Stan Newsham is passionate about renovating cast- iron radiators and still winces when he recalls the demolition of the Maxwell House building in Manchester - hundreds of radiators were thrown out of the windows, along with panelling, flooring and spiral staircases.

It's the sort of waste that sickens Thornton Kay, founder of Salvo, an information exchange dedicated to bringing together buyers and sellers of architectural salvage which also acts as an informal trade body for dealers who agree to operate under the Salvo code. This was established in response to a spate of thefts during the salvage boom in the Eighties. Buying from a Salvo dealer minimises risk of stolen goods or materials stripped from listed buildings.

Architectural salvage has changed over the past 10 years. A decade ago, the emphasis was on tracking down a period fireplace appropriate to your house or looking for shutters to fit the empty cases around the sitting-room windows of your Victorian villa. These days, the emphasis is on wholesale reclamation and preservation. But although builders are no longer breaking up Georgian fireplaces to get at the cast-iron grates for scrap, Salvo's Thornton Kay feels the reclamation situation is actually getting worse. "Ironic really, since we're supposed to be more ecologically aware," he says.

There is nothing new about architectural salvage. In many old buildings you can detect earlier elements: a piece of oak from an ancient barn used to repair a door frame; timbers from early glassless windows re-used as wall studding.

James Webster of Tower Materials in Mendlesham, Suffolk, feels guilty every time he looks at a new piece of oak. "I see it as a tree that died, along with all the creatures that depended on it." Webster began in the business about 25 years ago, when he cycled past an Elizabethan cottage about to be demolished to make way for a new house. He bought the cottage for only pounds 20, dismantled it carefully and he was in business. Today, he has about half-a-dozen, timber-framed buildings in numbered and colour- coded pieces waiting for buyers, lying around like some nightmarishly complicated Lego set for grown-ups. He doesn't advertise. "No amount of advertising on this planet will sell something like that unless someone wants it. Far better that a customer comes along to buy something else and just happens upon it that way."

At his yard there are five acres of more readily accessible salvage to rummage through. There are shapely cast-iron pig feeders that make good garden planters, turn-of-the-century wrought-iron harrows that can be wall-mounted as an alternative to trellising, shallow stoneware sinks, milk churns, garden rollers - all will make decorative garden focal points. As well as battered wheelbarrows there are water carriers - butts on wheels to carry water from one end of the garden to another in pre-hose days. "It's not all country-house property. We try to keep something for everyone," Webster explains.

Most stock is sourced within East Anglia - 80 per cent of his custom is local, so people want the characteristic orangey-red bricks to repair existing walls, or clay pammets (tiles) to lay floors in the vernacular East Anglian style. "We're not the cheapest but we have the best quality. We sort everything and keep things together in sets."

Declan Molloy of Victorian Wood Works shares James Webster's positive distaste for newly felled timber. "I'm known in the demolition trade as a wood man," says Molloy proudly as he strides through his warehouse, a Grade II-listed former repair shed for steam engines at the London International Freight Terminal in Stratford, east London, that still draws railway buffs on a pilgrimage. Wood in varying stages of reclamation is stacked everywhere. A consignment of Russian oak that got "lost" and was left on a Liverpool wharfside for 40 years is waiting to be milled. A load of French railway carriage oak boards stripped from the sides of old goods wagons has just arrived, appropriately, by train. "This oak is three times harder than normal. Even high heels, the bane of all wooden floors, don't affect it," Molloy explains.

France is a good source of timber. "The French are still very cavalier about their history," according to Molloy. "Half the time they'd rather just burn it." He discovered a prize cache of oak in a coffin-maker's yard. It was delivered in 1913, but the coffin-maker died in the First World War and the timber remained untouched for 80 years. "It's just beautiful - coffin-makers always had the very best wood."

Eastern Europe is a rich hunting ground. The economic changes have made people more eager to obliterate the past: anything old with implications of poverty and peasant ways is ripped out. Yet for every load of timber Molloy manages to salvage, he reckons 2,000 times as much is chucked away. At the moment, he's buying up old Czech manure carts, made from 14-inch oak boards that have coloured to a deep brown. In case your nose is wrinkling in disgust, he is at pains to point out that all the wood from Victorian Wood Works is kilned, which kills worm, eliminates smells and improves the wood's stability. "Kilning creates a real bottleneck in the processing for us but it is crucial. It's the only way I can look people in the eye and guarantee our wood. We don't take shortcuts. The wood is 100 per cent reclaimed and 100 per cent reliable."

Under the great echoing roof of the engine shed there are men re-milling the wood, cutting it, gently cleaning it with the merest tickle of a sandblaster and doing the most important job of all - and the most mind-numbing - de-nailing. "Timber reclamation hinges on de-nailing. If nails are left in it's a disaster." Victorian Wood Works' reclaimed floors end up everywhere: the company is responsible for a replacement floor at the Tower of London in early 15th-century oak; shops in the Jigsaw clothing chain have reclaimed oak floors from the Czech manure carts; and those in Laura Ashley are made from the French railway carriage boards.

Declan Molloy attributes his fascination with flooring in particular to a night spent pacing the bird's eye maple floor of the maternity ward in the Mother's Hospital, Hackney when his wife was in labour with their son, Dominic. A few weeks later, the hospital was demolished and he spotted the demolition crew lighting great bonfires. He rushed over, bought 200 yards of maple from the foreman for pounds 400, sold it through an ad in his local newspaper and hasn't looked back since.

Danny Slattery is another specialist within the industry: "In salvage, you've got to focus on one area. I chose doors and window shutters - things you couldn't make for the price you pay for them." His company name, Original Doors Save A Tree, says it all. Its narrow shopfront in Brockley in south London stretches back a surprisingly long way, and acts as an outsize filing cabinet where doors rather than papers are grouped under headings such as Victorian, Edwardian, front, internal, glazed, starburst. He always has upwards of 300 in stock and is happy to advise on period setting and to send out photos or fax sketches. In fact, he won't sell you a door unless your builder or joiner comes and approves it and checks it will fit. "We'd get too many returns otherwise."

The two great lessons to be learnt from the salvage industry, which you hear time and time again from its practitioners, are: first, try to use reclaimed materials wherever possible in building work - they're cheaper and they don't waste the planet's dwindling resources. And never ever throw anything away - someone, somewhere is bound to want it

In-Situ Antiques, Worsley Street, Manchester (0161-839 2010). Tower Materials, Mendlesham, Suffolk (01449 766095). Victorian Wood Works, Stratford, London E15 (0181-534 1000). Original Doors Save a Tree, 93 Endwell Road, London SE4 (0171-252 8109).

Nationwide listings of architectural salvage dealers, arranged county by county, are available from Salvo, 18 Ford Village, Berwick-upon-Tweed TD15 2QG (01890 820333). For pounds 5.75 they will send you your local county listings for all dealers plus a nationwide list of Salvo dealers, and copies of `Salvo magazine' and `SalvoNews'. You can also visit the Salvo website on http:/www.salvo.co.uk