An Ode To Old Street Roundabout

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 16 months ago
An Ode To Old Street Roundabout

You might describe St Agnes Well as a London Casserole. Better known as the set of subways and shops beneath Old Street Roundabout it is essentially assorted chunks of the city old and new, hip and traditional, tossed into one subterranean pot, warmed and stirred by the unending whirlpool of traffic above.

Jason, owner of Scotts Key Cutting and Shoe Repair, has been here for 20 years

While Google billboards flash up the latest online search trends (revenge porn was big at one point), Evening Standard vendors flap papers in the path of rush hour commuters. Nincomsoup's chalkboard offers a salmon & tarragon concoction and a young man called Julian fries up chorizo and plantains on a Colombian street food stall, but you can just as easily fill your boots with a warmed up sausage roll from Martin's the newsagent. You can hang out at a pop-up space filled with a jazz ensemble one day and hundreds of white balloons the next, you might just want to nip down to get a spare set of keys cut.

A bit of everything's hunkered down into these strange underground streets, and like a fluky one-pot stew that's been made up along the way, it's somehow worked out alright.

An artist's impression of what the revamped Old Street Roundabout will look like

What had become a despairing bunker with the vague tang of uric acid, received a lick of paint in 2014; almost overnight the leaden walls awoke with fizzy oranges and Smarties blues. Small, fresh-faced businesses arrived on the scene too. TfL's patch-up job was much-praised, even if some said it was merely rolling a turd in glitter.

Ultimately, TfL has a bigger, structural overhaul in mind, and by 2018 the plan is to hack off the roundabout's north-west arm, taming the traffic in favour of cyclists and pedestrians. It'll help to tackle the mess going on upstairs — but it also means filling in one of the subways, and raises the question: what will happen to the businesses down in the Well?

Inside Scotts Key Cutting and Shoe Repair, over the grinding and shrieks of various machines that polish and cut, we ask Jason, the owner of 20 years, if he's worried about TfL's plans:

"There's only so much you can do to replace something that has paid the mortgage and brought the kids up basically," he says, "But if the renovation works out right, the correct tunnel's open and we can get another premises off TfL, we'd like to stay."

A recent balloon-filled pop-up

Another St Agnes Well stalwart is Camden Lock Books; starting out in north London in the 1980s, the independent shop ventured to Old Street about 12 years ago, and you can sense it's really settled into its groove.

"We've got very good footfall and loyal customers," says Malcolm, who's worked here on and off for five years. "We provide a service where customers can order a book online, and pick it up the next day."

The shop even provides books to local schools, underlining their community ties.

It goes without saying that they'd would like to stay put, but you wonder if longstanding businesses will have a place among an increasingly impermanent set of tenants.

Malcolm at Camden Lock Books, which has been at Old Street for over a decade

St Agnes Well has become a hotbed of here-one-month-gone-the-next businesses; some of the shorter-term tenants pay in excess of £2,000 a week for the privilege of being among the throngs of Silicon Roundabout commuters — the kind of people who will happily patronise a space that's a yoga studio one week, a pop-up peddling ironic Christmas jumpers the next.

Bintu is helping to bring hip hop into the lives of more Londoners, with the help of good coffee

Says Bintu, who works for Tone: "My boss Tony created this — he's a hip hop enthusiastic, and used to be a part of the industry.

"We opened up a store based around bringing hip hop back to London. But in order to get people in we're selling coffees."

"Everyone's been friendly, people have been coming in. But you know how London is, everyone's in a rush."

The upper regions of the roundabout, due a major overhaul in 2018

Tone was only around for a month September but Marta and Ilana were even shorter term tenants, there for one day only, doling out samples of their 'fruit jerky' called Snact.

"Our target audience is young professional, people like us," says Ilyana, "and there's a lot of them in Old Street," she laughs.

Marta (left) and Ilyana

There's another reason why people like the Snact guys choose St Agnes Well — indeed it's the reason the shops exist in the first place — and that's Old Street underground and rail station.

Ali, who works at the station, switched jobs from Green Park, and is happy he did so: "It's a lot calmer, it's nicer. Friendlier people," he says, "Here you've got locals, and people who come to party.

"I remember Old Street and this area, what it was before. Compared to that it's now amazing."

Ali is glad of his move from Green Park to Old Street

The tube and rail aren't going anywhere. And it looks like the Well will continue to be used as a colourful concrete sounding board for pop-ups, start-ups and up-and-coming businesses (even as we're we're writing this up, we get a call from a company peddling a 'bespoke sandal pop-up' in the Well).

There is no other roundabout, no other tube station in London quite as lively, unpredictable and, dare we say, accommodating as Old Street. You just hope there's always a place for those who've stayed here through its greyer days.

Last Updated 27 October 2016