The great es­cape

Test your men­tal agility, have fun with friends and fam­ily and dis­cover un­told sto­ries from Nor­wich’s past, writes RACHEL BULLER

EDP Norfolk - - Inside -

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.his­to­rymys­

Alas­dair Wil­lett from His­tory Mys­tery based at Nor­wich Guild­hall

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