Fancy code-breaking your way out of escape rooms that look as professional as film sets, all based around Newcastle’s gruesome past? Say no more…
Let us introduce you to The Escape Key...
Escape rooms have experienced a boom in popularity in recent years, and it’s little wonder why. Essentially live-action versions of our favourite films and video games rolled into one, escape rooms give you the chance to be the hero in your own story – you’re the one stuck in seemingly inescapable peril, you’re the one breaking secret codes and you’re the one leading your group of mates to freedom from almost certain imprisonment. Well, kinda.
See, The Escape Key is like your average escape room experience, only better. In every single way. Offering four different indoor experiences – each of which are large, multi-roomed games (no claustrophobia here!) – as well as two outdoor games (they were among the first in the industry to create these) and an online escape game, The Escape Key recruits acting professionals, designs film set-standard rooms, and harnesses the very best technology to make each of their challenges as convincing and engaging as possible. But what we love most? The fact that each and every experience is somehow linked to Newcastle’s own exhilarating, inspiring and often pretty darn grisly past.
It’s easy to get carried away with these experiences, but that’s the very beauty of escape rooms – they immerse you so completely in their stories that your adrenaline starts pumping, your imagination jumps into overdrive and your fight-or-flight mode really kicks in. As cheesy as it all sounds, completing an escape room really does give you a buzz unlike any other. That is, if you go to a top-quality one. Luckily for us, one of the best in the business sits right here in Newcastle.
Don’t believe us? Well, we’re pretty sure The Escape Key wouldn’t be listed among the Top 100 escape rooms in the world for nothing. Pretty high acclaim, right? Nor would they be ranked as the Number 1 escape rooms in Newcastle, receive consistent feedback from their customers that describes their experiences with words like ‘breath-taking’, or win Tripadvisor’s 2020 Travellers’ Choice award. And yet, here they are.
Because you can’t say The Escape Key doesn’t utilise their environment to their advantage. After all, it’s an absolute dream for any slightly-spooky experience provider to be located just metres away from the city’s oldest graveyard, where the bodies of hundreds of Geordies lie – each with their own gory story to tell.
Now don’t get us wrong, these guys certainly aren’t hardcore horror hawkers! They don’t get their kicks from making you jump out of your skin with fright. But whether you’re immersed in the (all too relatable) Plague Room, knowing many of its victims are buried just below your feet, or you’re fighting your way out of the Witch Room, knowing 16th-century women were hanged for witchcraft just metres away, the hairs on the back of your neck can’t help but stand on end a little.
We caught up with The Escape Key owner and creator, Martin Ashburn, to see if we could sniff out the secret to their incredible success…Visit The Escape Key
What’s The Escape Key all about?
The Escape Key is an independent, family-run escape room business. We’re all passionate about creating superb, immersive experiences for our customers and our Games Masters work hard to ensure guests always have an amazing experience.
What makes us different from other escape rooms is that all our challenges are based around Newcastle’s rich heritage and our customers – whether local or those visiting the city – tell us they really enjoy learning about the fascinating history which inspired our rooms.
As well as having strong local stories as the narrative to our games, we set out to raise the standard and create the most immersive escape rooms possible. We build our rooms to almost movie-set quality. It does take us longer and costs a lot more, but it’s so satisfying when players notice our attention to detail.
Can you tell us about the escape experiences on offer?
We have four large, premium, multi-room escape experiences at our Gallowgate venue, meaning we can accommodate around 25 people playing at once. We also now have two outdoor escape games, which take our players on exciting, story-led adventures through the streets of Newcastle. Out in the fresh air, they can exercise their bodies and minds while exploring our incredible city – discovering its hidden gems and learning about its fascinating history.
Best played by teams of between 4 and 6 people, our games aren’t simply about escaping – each game has its own unique story and objective and contains a variety of intriguing puzzles that will challenge our players’ problem solving, coordination and communication skills.
When did you first come up with the idea of opening your own escape rooms?
Back in 2015, I set up a Secret Agent Academy called Spy School, which introduced teenagers to computer programming through STEM projects using robots and drones.
One of our most popular activities was a laser maze that the young spies had to get through while collecting objects which gave them a code to a safe. I was telling my brother about it and he commented that it was like an escape room. ‘What’s one of those?’ I remember asking. The next day I played my first escape room. I loved it, but knew straight away that I could create something better and much more immersive. We decided to go for it and within weeks had found an old warehouse to lease in Gallowgate.
What were you doing before The Escape Key?
My work background has been in education – in all its weird and wonderful forms! It began 30 years ago in an African village school, teaching wood and metalwork to classes of 60+ kids. That experience helped me learn the importance of resourcefulness and creativity – which probably led to me building a raft from my bed and sailing it down the river Nile while I was there!
It’s easy to see how The Escape Key has been inspired by your real-life exploits!
Absolutely! After Africa I moved to Turkey, teaching business English. It was after one evening class that I was arrested and imprisoned for espionage! I often wonder if that was where the seed for Spy School was planted…
When did you return to your native North East?
In the late ‘90s. I was signed as a ‘free summer transfer’ by Newcastle United to develop a technology-rich programme at their new Learning Centre in St James’ Park. Using football as the hook, we ran video, animation and computer coding classes to over 20,000 kids from local schools.
Government-funded programmes like that were hit hard by austerity cuts and I was made redundant in 2015. And so, using the experience and skills I’d developed, I set up Click Club – which aimed to engage youngsters in technology and coding through Crime Scene Investigations, robotics workshops and a secret agent academy called Spy School.
How do you go about making sure your escape rooms are as immersive as possible for your customers?
Our games are based around strong local stories. We film actors to present the story and set the scene in short films, which players watch before going into the game. Once inside, the players are faced with a range of puzzles and these are carefully matched to the story and era of the game.
We also go to massive efforts to create authentic-looking environments that really help take players to another world. Smart lighting, quality soundtracks and sound effects all help to further immerse the players. You can find out more about how we create our rooms in our blog.
How physically demanding are the challenges?
The challenges are all about problem solving and, while some are physical in the sense that you need to touch, move and manipulate things, none require strength or fitness.
The challenges in your experiences are inspired by Newcastle’s own heritage. How did you first become interested in the history of the city?
It was really down to The Escape Key’s location in Gallowgate, which overlooks the graveyard of Newcastle’s oldest church, St. Andrew’s. The church staff kindly let us look in their archives and that’s when we started to discover some fascinating insights into the city’s past.
What have been some of the most interesting/unexpected things you have found out about past Newcastle?
This city has such a rich heritage and there are lots of interesting and, sometimes, quite dark tales which we can draw on. The Plague Room is based on one of the worst plague outbreaks in English history – and many of the victims were buried right below us in the churchyard!
Perhaps even more grisly is the story of the Newcastle witches, who were hanged at Gallowgate and buried in the graveyard right below our Witch Room. It’s not all gloom though – our latest creation, Electric City, celebrates the fact that Newcastle was the first city in the world to be lit by electricity.
Escape rooms have experienced a surge in popularity in recent years. What do you think is it about them that people love so much?
Good escape rooms bring people together to share an exciting experience. It’s an experience that can be enjoyed by friends, families and workmates of any age and at any level of fitness. Gaming is a hugely popular pastime for many, but it can sometimes be a solitary experience. Escape rooms let people participate in a live-action game where people work together for the benefit of the whole team.
You clearly have an interest about the city’s past, but where are your favourite spots to hang out in present-day Newcastle?
When I was researching our outdoor escape games, I discovered some really cool spots in Newcastle. The narrow ‘chares’ or alleys leading off the Quayside, the old city walls, and I find Blackfriars – which features in both outdoor games – a tranquil gem of a place to sit and think.
What does the future look like for The Escape Key?
It’s been a turbulent 15 months for so many hospitality businesses, so we’re hoping for a period of stability which sees business returning to pre-pandemic levels. But we don’t like to stand still for too long either, so we’ve been developing a couple of great ideas for some new escape rooms too!