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Buying a round Work starts this week relocating a pair of timber framed pubs in central Manchester. David Hayward went to find out why and Len Grant took the photos.

This time next year regulars at Manchester's Old Wellington Inn, and Sinclairs Oyster Bar next door, should be enjoying a pint in familiar surroundings seemingly unchanged for years. Everything around them - even creaks in the uneven floor and tobacco stains on the ceiling - will be as it always has been.

But appearances are deceptive and late night revellers may for once have a genuine excuse for being a little disturbed. Both pubs and their contents are being moved - literally - 200m down the road and round the corner.

Manchester Millennium, the government-appointed task force overseeing the city's major revamp following the 1996 IRA bomb, is spending over £2.6M ensuring that at least the hostelries' regular clientele are not disturbed.

'Our prime aim is that punters at the bar notice no difference at all,' says project manager Richard Bannister. 'We will rebuild the pubs exactly as they are now with every mark and imperfection faithfully reinstated.'

For these are not ordinary taverns. The city's oldest existing inn and its only surviving medieval timber frame building - the Old Wellington - is a scheduled ancient monument. Adjoining it, Sinclairs, similar in appearance but now mainly Victorian built, is Grade II listed (see box).

Unfortunately these protected buildings, currently sited in Shambles Square just a few hundred metres from where the bomb was placed, are in the way of a planned new pedestrian thoroughfare seen as crucial to the proposed £1bn city centre redevelopment. The 500m long New Cathedral Street will link a notable old chapel, St Ann's church, with the city's cathedral and there was no way the two pubs could remain where they are.

This new landscaped boulevard, designed to open up long hidden views of the city, is pivotal to the extensive pedestrianisation planned for the bomb-shattered centre, much of which still remains shrouded behind tarpaulins and scaffolding.

Since the bomb exploded 19 months ago, the rebuild masterplan, created by consultant EDAW, has been worked up into a series of more detailed designs, many of which will be submitted for planning approval in March. But most of the worst damage has now either been repaired for removed.

The much criticised frontage of the Arndale shopping centre, just across the road from where the bomb was placed, has been replaced by a temporary covering awaiting approval of a new more ''sympathetic' facade.

Repairs to two grand Victorian listed masonry structures, the Royal Exchange and the Corn Exchange, are well advanced and extensive scaffolding enclosing the latter has just been removed.

The two most severely weakened structures closest to the bomb, Marks & Spencer and a 10 storey office block next door, have been demolished. In their place a vast hole will soon house foundations for the world's largest M&S store.

On the edge of this hole sits Shambles Square, exposed for the first time since it was surrounded by the latest redevelopment operation 20 years ago.

Most Mancunians support the relocation of the two pubs. For the square, with its 1970s box like architecture of shops and offices, could be said to enclose and strangle the two old buildings like a concrete collar.

But their owners, Bass and Samuel Smith, needed a little convincing. Six months of debate and legal wrangling, resulting in the breweries receiving hefty loss of earnings compensation from the city and a contractual promise of no damage to the structures either inside or out, is now over.

And this week, a month or so late, contractor Watkin Jones Construction starts dismantling both buildings; meticulously labelling their several thousand components. They will then be painstakingly reassembled in a yet to be created Exchange Square at the northern end of the new pedestrian street close to the cathedral itself.

During a just finished two month structural survey, every joint, peg and timber twist in the Old Wellington's largely original 16th century oak frame has been measured, drawn, photographed and videoed. Every metre of brickwork in the walls of Sinclairs is catalogued, with old hand built bricks marked for re-use in exactly the same wall area.

Over 10,000 items, from stone roof slabs to small pains of leaded window glass, are labelled to ensure that they are repositioned in the precise reverse order to their removal.

The current plasterwork, replacing long vanished wattle and daub infill between timber frames, will be renewed. But existing gaps adjacent to oak beams - even if they are just a few millimetres wide - have been recorded for faithfully reproducing on the new site.

Wooden flooring will remain uneven; joint imperfections will be retained and tests are under way to determine the best way to reinstate nicotine staining on the Sinclairs' low ceilings.

Heritage architect Buttress, Fuller, Alsop, Willams - plus archaeologists from Manchester University - will remain on site during dismantling in case removal of timber panelling reveals unknown structural details. And, as part of the deal with the breweries, their own separate teams of architects, engineers and historians will also monitor progress to ensure that their properties are returned totally intact.

The dismantling task is less daunting than it would initially appear, as it is not the first time engineers have at least partially taken the two structures apart. The city centre's 1974 upgrade, initially responsible for cocooning the previously freestanding buildings within their concrete square, demanded that both pubs be raised 1.5m to fit in with altered street levels and provide clearance beneath for a large underground access roadway servicing new shopping centres.

A substantial 13.7m long grillage of concrete beams, installed beneath the buildings, allowed the lot to be jacked up in one go. During the lift both pubs, then in generally poor structural condition, were extensively braced inside.

Preparations for the jacking, and later major refurbishment resulting in much of the framework being dismantled and repaired, have left behind detailed records of the structural jigsaw.

John Charge, the then Ove Arup engineer responsible for the 1970s lift, has returned to the square a quarter century later to help oversee the more drastic 1990s move. 'Timber box frames like these were designed to be dismantled, and many of the beams are already labelled from either original or later work,' says Charge, now partner in his own practice, Marsland & Charge. 'The operation should not be too complicated as there is really only one correct way to take them down.'

But the contractor is taking no chances of the proverbial bolt or beam embarrassingly left without a home after the rebuild. 'If they don't fit together again it is our fault so absolutely nothing will be disposed of until both buildings are totally rebuilt,' says Watkin Jones director Nick Bell.

Engineers have only until mid- March to clear the Shambles site, but the pubs' new home contains weak reclaimed fill above an old watercourse. Until new basements and piled foundations are complete in the summer, every piece of pub, both inside and out, must be stored in a nearby environment- controlled warehouse.

To allow legal dismantling, both buildings have been temporarily de- listed from their protected status; though government scheduling agency, English Heritage, remains an ever present overlord.

'Everything we do is with their approval and is geared towards the pubs being re-listed after they open next January,' says Bannister. Though he adds cautiously: 'But whether they are protected again is up to the breweries, for it is they who must reapply.'

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