Property: Look what the neighbours have done: The houses in the mid-Victorian terrace where Arabella Warner lives may appear identical, but beyond the front door any similarity is coincidental

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The Independent Online
THE STREET where I live might have been built by Henry Ford: 'You can have any house you like,' he would have said, 'as long as it is exactly like your neighbour's'

It is a typical, unremarkable, though attractive, example of mid-Victorian urban architecture, designed, like most terraces of the period, as a piece: all the houses identical. Outside they were flat-fronted, half-stucco, half-brick, with wrought-iron railings masking off tiny front gardens. Inside, each storey had two ample rooms, with a smaller room on the half-landings.

Today, the architectural integrity of the street remains, give or take the odd primrose front door, aluminium window frame or brick wall topped with fancy metalwork. But within the walls the uniformity ends. Years of different owners, tastes and ideas have given the houses remarkable individuality.

Some have five bedrooms, some only two. A few have huge open- plan basement kitchens, others retain the individual rooms. In some, there are rear extensions with conservatories and play rooms. In one house, a photographic darkroom has been built into the kitchen; in another, the space under the outside steps (usually so damp) has been lagged and converted into a utility room.

Then there is the decor. While one person has white walls throughout, another prefers orange Chinese lacquer. There are patterned carpets, painted floorboards, a maple floor saved from a dance studio in Manchester; there are Victorian cast-iron fireplaces, radiators suspended upside down from the ceiling, and Fifties gas fires with brown-tiled surrounds. In one east London street of 50 houses, there are 50 ways of using the same space.

Graham Carter's front door opens into a tiny antechamber, which he uses for hanging coats. But the opening is deceptive. Beyond it, he has knocked out all the walls to create a huge sitting-room on two levels.

'From the moment I saw it, I knew how I wanted it,' says Graham, an artist and photographer. 'I always had this need to tear down walls and open up spaces. It was an act of rebellion against the claustrophobia of my childhood, when we lived in tiny rooms crammed with furniture. There is a lot of wasted space in these houses, which is not used for living. I wanted to explore it.'

One of his most cunning ideas is to dispense with the small room on the first landing, which, in most of the houses, is a lavatory or bathroom. He has opened it out, replaced the door leading into the garden with a stained-glass window, and uses the resulting area as a surprisingly spacious study.

But Graham, a bachelor, is spared some of the practicalities that people with children must consider. He has only two bedrooms, while across the road Viv Griffiths has four, and on occasions has had five. With four children of her own and two foster children, she wanted the maximum number of rooms.

'I decided it was better to have lots of small bits of space so that we could get away from each other,' she says. Where Graham has his study, she has her bathroom; and on the upstairs half-landing, where he has his bathroom, she has a small bedroom. She has kept the rest of the rooms intact.

'Basically, my priority is that I have a warm, comfortable home in which the children can jump on the furniture but are encouraged not to squash baked beans into the carpet.' There are built-in cupboards everywhere: 'I'm not fanatical, but I don't like clutter. I'm with William Morris all the way when he said 'Have nothing in your home which you neither know to be useful or believe to be beautiful'.'

Graham's neighbour, Sue Chester, would be at sea in either of these two houses. 'I used to live in a sail loft,' she says. 'The ground floor was rented to a boatbuilder and we lived on top. I found the open plan very restricting; I like to be able to separate things off.'

Unlike some of the houses in the street, hers has not retained the double doors between the two first- floor rooms. They were removed to provide maximum wall space for bits and pieces collected from all over the world. Her home is a riot of colours and shapes. On every available wall space are plates and tins covered in flowers and fruits, button boxes and icons, pink flamingos and Sri Lankan puppets. She even puts plastic flowers in the garden to make it more colourful.

'I've been a compulsive collector since I was a child,' she says. 'It's not so easy now, but you used to be able to pick up wonderful things from car-boot sales and junk shops at affordable prices. My bed and this chair are the only new pieces I have in the house. I don't think I paid more than pounds 10 for anything else. My favourite is that clock.' She points to a gold, sparkly timepiece supported by a model of an Indonesian woman in costume. 'It was obviously bought on holiday. It's very tacky, but I love it.'

Pam Thomas was born in the street 55 years ago and now lives there with her husband, George. She remembers when the houses had no electricity and no bathrooms. 'They were usually occupied by two families. You had the kitchen and sitting-room in the basement, lavatory on the half- landing, and then two bedrooms on the first floor. Then the other family had a kitchen in the little room and a bedroom and sitting room at the top. Everyone shared the loo. When we first moved in there were two old ladies living upstairs. When they died, that's when we had our bathroom put in.'

The Thomases still use the front upstairs room as a sitting room - its two windows provide natural light - and the basement as a kitchen and dining room. 'I don't like these open-plan affairs,' Pam says. 'I like a kitchen to be a kitchen and your dining-room to be a dining-room. They should be kept apart.'

She remains one of the few residents to rent her house. 'The street was bought up by a Greek landlord in the Sixties, and gradually sold off,' she says.

'We missed our chance of buying the house because I lost my job,' George says. (The houses sold for about pounds 2,000 in those days.) 'Now it would be impossible.'

The Thomases were Fifties children, and the house reflects that. They have a television in a cabinet and a gas fire with a huge white wooden surround. 'I know that the old cast-iron fireplaces are very much the thing these days,' George says, 'but in the Fifties everything had to be flush and straight. I still like it that way. We threw all the fireplaces away, along with the shutters and doors - they were old anyway - and I boarded over the old kitchen next door. It's still there, behind that wall.'

Such acts of individuality could not have been predicted by the builder. But by providing a sound and spacious framework, he encouraged a century-and-a-half of imaginative interior design. I only wish I had seen what people had done to their houses before I converted my own. You just can't tell from the outside.