Hannah Hammond founded Access Escape in Canning Town, East London, in January 2019. It’s the first pop-up escape room that’s fully accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired – played completely in the dark.
Hannah chatted to our Coaching for Geeks Overlord Robin Bates…
Access Escape is quite unique in terms of escape rooms in that it’s in the dark.
Yes, it’s in complete darkness and it’s the first one in London and as far as I know, the first one in the UK, but there are lots of escape rooms in the UK. We decided to take out one of your senses, which was sight. So we’ve made it accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired as well. So then you have to feel, smell, and communicate your way around the room. It makes it very different.
So is it complete darkness or just low light?
The whole thing from start to finish is completely dark.
If someone snuck a torch in, would that help them?
Obviously, it would be useful but I feel like the puzzles we’ve got, if you saw them you’d be able to figure them out a lot quicker. They’ve been designed for the dark, and I worked through quite a lot of different designs and these ones work really well. But if you could see it, I’m sure you can figure out a lot quicker.
Can you just talk me through that design process? Sounds like it was an iterative process of development.
I really love puzzles anyway. I used to work in events design. I’ve done quite a few escape rooms as well. Originally I set it up in my lounge before we had a venue, before we had the company backing us. I just designed the different puzzles I have in my big sketchbook and made them really cheaply. I got friends over to do the games and some of them were fine… and then others just didn’t work at all in the dark.
They were way too hard or things were too small. We had to look at using different types of padlocks and what kind of bits are going to work. It was just about buying materials and if it works; Great, we can use this! If it doesn’t; Okay. Start again. I was building our designs and the ones that worked; we built them better each time. Just the materials, change them slightly to make them a bit more usable, user-friendly. It was definitely trial and error.
Escape rooms rely on visual elements such as finding numbers and entering codes, recognising patterns, completing jigsaws etc. I don’t want you to give away any puzzles, but how do you address that in your room?
You still need to have pattern recognition in; we have the numbers and stuff. You just use your other senses; feel it rather than seeing it. I don’t know how to explain it without giving away stuff, but there are definitely puzzles that you would find in any escape room. When you go in, if you play it, it’s basically all my favourite kind of puzzles that I would be able to solve. I’m quite good with directional puzzles. And there are smelly puzzles.
Smelly puzzles? I’ve not encountered one of those before!
The smells we’ve had ups and downs with, because I love doing that because I have a great sense of smell and I’m always like, “yeah, I can do this!” but I know other people, who’ve been on my team, have, absolutely hated them. I knew accessibility wise, quite a lot of people have said on different forums, they find them hard or they don’t have a sense of smell. They’ve lost their sense of smell. So we’ve tried to make it so that you have to work as a team to figure it out.
That’s part of the joy of an escape room is that you’ll have people who are stronger at some things than others. You do the word puzzle, I’ll do this number one, do some maths.
And I’m no good at maths. So there we go.
I’m good at project managing everybody else… And pulling things apart.
Definitely. I’ll go with my sister and her fiancé and my partner a lot and I’m definitely good at shouting at people. That’s the main quality I bring to the ring. Yeah, definitely being able to communicate well… Not necessarily shouting at people, being able to communicate with your team and show what you found and saying, “Okay, this could connect to this”. And just shout out your ideas to people, helps them, you build on their ideas or think of a different way that it could work.
Have you had any funny reactions to the escape room being pitch black?
We’ve had quite a few screams, little squeals when they found something furry or they found something that’s a bit scary. It’s not a scary room though, we didn’t want to lock anybody in the room because it’s completely dark so we’ve used blackout curtains. We went through a few different ideas on how people could finish, including filling up a cauldron until it got to the top and when it released something, you could get out. But that was so hard and people didn’t want to pour because they kept missing the cauldron.
And you don’t want a wet floor in the dark!
Right! Now you have to find the six different dragon eggs. And once you’ve got all six eggs, then you escape with them and you’ve saved the dragons.
Was your room a deliberate attempt to create something accessible or was that a by-product of being in the dark?
It was actually a deliberate attempt to create something accessible and then being in the dark came later. We just thought it’d be a cool way to change escape rooms and do something a bit different.
It’s a pop-up, a lower budget than other escape rooms and it’s quite a cool unique thing to do. I worked in a disability charity before, my partner and me went to play in an escape room in Prague and I just finished the game and I was like, I absolutely love escape rooms and I just wish there were more accessible because it’s so sad that like not everyone can join in with this.
I absolutely love this and I want everyone to enjoy it do as much as I do, which obviously they’re not, not everyone is going to enjoy it. But I know people who I’ve had on my team before, forgot their glasses and they’ve not been able to read anything. With low lighting and tiny little numbers, it’s so frustrating to open, and I said, okay, something that’s for people who are blind or visually impaired will be very cool. And my partner was like, “well you need to go set it up, just go do it”. And I was like, “okay, fine, I will!”
Do you have any recommendations or tips for anybody out there who’s got an idea, as you did, and turning it into a reality?
Believe in yourself. Because I definitely didn’t believe in my idea! I was like constantly needing reassurance from everyone that is actually a good idea and this is going to work. That’s quite hard. You’re going to feel slightly defeated on some days. I looked around for a company who I could get a room with, who I could work with, and it was really hard. Eventually, I found the Ministry of Startups who backed me. They really liked my idea and they let me use the space; it’s a great, great team to work with. What you need to do is go out and work with a company that really believes in you and back you.
How did you find the Ministry of Startups?
I was looking at loads of different venues in London. I saw so many that were too expensive, or couldn’t accommodate what we wanted to achieve. My partner had worked in a Ministry of Startups building previously and had said they have some very cool buildings across London, you know, get in touch. And then they were, “Oh perfect timing. We have this pub in Canning Town. Why don’t you come have a look at it and come chat with us?” They were just so friendly and so helpful. We got very, very lucky.
But it doesn’t just happen; if you haven’t been out there looking for it you’d never have found it.
That’s true. Yeah, it wouldn’t have happened.
How long are you going to run for?
So we’ve just opened last week, we’re going to be open for the next 6 months and then depending on if we get enough people in, we are going to publish somewhere else or pop up a different room.
Where can people find out and book?
The website is at www.accessescape.com and we’re a short distance from Canning Town Station.
What’s your favourite escape room?
Oh my God. Okay. There’s quite a few! I’d say my favourite one in London was Time Run: The Lance of Longinus, although that was more of an experience than an escape room. It’s like 50/50. When I went in I felt like I was in Jungle Run, it was incredible, the budget on that is like just crazy. The stuff that they have done is just amazing.
Thanks for your time; I hope you have a brilliant run!
I was then led to the room and can confirm it’s pitch black. I stumbled around for a couple of minutes and decided I was coming back soon to try the game for real with my friends…
Dark Magik by Access Escape can be found at The Durham Arms, 24 Stephenson Street, Canning Town, London, UK and will run until the end of 2019.