The girl who grew fur and the Romans’ killer app: Roads.

You and I are not the first to observe that the the hub of London’s startup scene and therefore everything that is obsessed with the “new” is located on a road called Old Street. But is it really “Old” you may wonder.  Yes it is.
Unlike the broad, automobile-oriented streets of, say, Silicon Valley, the roads around Silicon Roundabout were first laid 2,000 years ago by the Romans.
In this difference of origin lies an important variation in perspective between the two tech hubs.  This thought occurred to me when I walked underneath the magic roundabout and learned the strange  tale of a girl who grew fur on her body.  I shall explain.
Beneath Old Street Roundabout lies a small maze of shops. Half of them are pop up stores that come and go as brands , big and small , bravely test their new concepts with the rush hour commuters who stream in and out of  the London Underground station.
Dealing with this lot strikes me as a hopeless task. These people are hurtling through the underground corridors of Old Street roundabout like kayakers through whitewater rapids. To such stony-faced, speed-walking, desk warriors would you be brave enough to flog your new line in yoga pants or hand made gluten free chocolates ? Not me. I barely go down there ever at rush hour. For any concept store it is a severe test. But Darwin’s brutal observations apply and somehow the fittest of the retailers do survive;   So the other half of the underground shopkeepers are those who are not pop ups but have taken up permanent residence and they   include a bookshop, a newsagent, a florist, a soup restaurant. And , it goes without saying, a key-cutting, shoe repair shop.  When it comes to retail, the key-cutting, shoe -repairer genus is the cockroach.  No environment is too brutal.  The more difficult it is to turn a coin the harder their shell  becomes.
Nevertheless, despite my clammy aversion to confined spaces, I recently found myself walking  through the guts of Old Street roundabout and while getting some keys cut, learned that this mini-labyrinth has a name. It is called St. Agnes’ Well.
St Agnes was one of the first women beatified by the Catholic church. Among her range of alternative fact miracles was something extraordinary which might inspire both the fashionable hipsters of Shoreditch and also  the cybernetic human DNA modifiers  of tech startup world.
You see in the fourth century AD, when she was thirteen, as a punishment for her belief in the forbidden religion of Christianity, she was going to be hauled naked through the streets of her Roman hometown. After praying for relief she suddenly grew hair all over her body and her modesty was preserved. Believe me, as POTUS would say. It’s a miracle.
Anyway long before the invention of the roundabout, let alone the construction of the ugliest gyratory in the world, there was a Roman Road  which became known as Auld Street. And at one end of what we call Old Street was a holy spring which was named after our modest friend, St. Agnes.
A Shoreditch startup once diverted some of the water from the spring to make its product: beer. This was in the 1620s. Unfortunately the spring, which surfaced in a small pond near where Old Street roundabout stands today, would all too frequently become polluted by dead animals and humans.
Because rotting flesh was bad for the beer some entrepreneurial folk had a smart idea to protect the water and built a wall around the well where the spring surfaced.  The well was called St Agnes Well in honour of the saint whose determination saved her purity from the Romans.
Leap forward to today and St Agnes Well is a small shopping mall above an underground station but below a roundabout. The spring itself is a short distance from Old Street roundabout but its actual whereabouts shall not be revealed by me today because the thing that interest me isn’t any particular history but the abundance of it.
Because in this heart of neophilia, invention and disruption there is layer upon layer of history. Sediment upon sediment. for example Fifty yards south of Old Street is the graveyard of  the writer John Bunyan, the  mathematician,Thomas Bayes  and the artist William Blake. This sits opposite the chapel where John Wesley preached and invented Methodism.  Fifty yards north of it is a street so new that it shines. This road is called Silicon Way.
Old Street itself was built by the Romans in a straight line to connect two North-South roads they had built as they colonised Britain.  Road building was one of the Roman Empire’s killer apps.
And what this gives is perspective. While the giants of Silicon Valley are tempted by their success and influence to believe now is the unique  moment for technology to strike, Silicon roundabout is steeped in reminders that now is but another moment in time for technology to make the world better.
And  the real test is  will it be remembered in 2000 years time?
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