The great escape
Test your mental agility, have fun with friends and family and discover untold stories from Norwich’s past, writes RACHEL BULLER
How Norwich’s history has become a game
IT IS no secret that Norwich is steeped in the most extraordinary history; yet there are countless fascinating and intriguing stories woven into the fabric of the city’s past which remain largely unheard.
However, in the past year, thousands of people have embarked on solving some of the county’s most macabre and interesting mysteries – all while locked in a medieval cell with their friends and family.
The History Mystery game at Norwich’s 15th century Guildhall sees competitors battling against the clock to solve cryptic puzzles and piece together a crime.
Set up by history enthusiast Alasdair Willett, the business has just celebrated its first birthday – and he says people not only love the chance to test their mental agility, but also the fact the stories are true.
“I used to work as a change management consultant but I wanted a change, and I guess I had a eureka moment,” he says.
The escape games started in Japan as an antidote to online gaming, becoming a huge phenomenon in Eastern European cities before moving here.
“I played a few and loved them, I thought it was a great idea and it was instantly addictive. However I found a lot of the ideas were the same – like defusing nuclear bombs or dealing with a mad scientist,” he says.
“So we decided to do something completely different, to take the concept but adapt it so the games were all based on real historic stories, in interesting places where that little piece of history actually happened,” he says. “Although we don’t lock you in and you don’t need to escape, you still have to go through the same tough mental and physical puzzles and tasks.
“One of our key aims is to open up underused spaces in heritage sites and tell their stories in an engaging and fun way. You can’t move in Norwich
without bumping in to some history so the city was perfect for our venture,” says Alasdair, who was born in Norfolk.
Working alongside his brother Richard, who runs a heritage company, and his son Pip, they began to work on historical stories from Norwich’s past and then set about creating puzzles and building sets.
The Guildhall has two different games; one, Archived Alive, is based upstairs in the city historian’s office where the puzzles are handpicked from more than 1,000 years of Norwich’s history, and Body of Evidence, based down in the original cells.
“It was a prison here from 1412 to 1985 so the setting is very atmospheric – you are in the cells which date back to medieval times, yet the walls are covered in bits of 1980s graffiti.
“Body of Evidence is based on an 1851 murder, where body parts were discovered all over the city. No-one claimed the victim’s remains, so police buried them under the floor of these cells.”
Such has been the business’s success, Alasdair is hoping to open similar ventures at historical sites nationwide, as well as expanding his games into other heritage sites in Norfolk.
He says the games appeal to every age group and they have even had three generations of the same family playing.
“The trick is to make sure it is challenging but not impossible. We have about a one in six success rate. Once the game begins it is the fastest hour of your life and although people joke about falling out before they go in, it is surprising how well they work together and recognise each other’s strengths.”
History Mystery, The Guildhall, Norwich NR2 1JS, 01603 327515, www.historymysterygame.com
Alasdair Willett from History Mystery based at Norwich Guildhall