Published: 06:00, 02 February 2020
If you look up 'fun and games in Kent' on Tripadvisor, one pastime dominates the list like no other.
Of the top 20, a remarkable 17 are escape rooms - a recent phenomenon which shows little sign of slowing.
What’s more, the top-rated Kent room is also ranked the best in the UK on the same site. No small feat given there are an estimated 1,500 now operating across the nation and close to 30 in Kent alone.
If you have yet to try your hand at one, you may be scratching your head at exactly what they are.
And there is a danger in trying to explain what an escape room is to the uninitiated which makes it sound like some form of tedious torture.
You go into a room with your nearest and dearest and are locked in for an hour with the only weapon at your disposal to end your confinement being your wits. Oh, and you can pay the best part of £100 for the experience.
But that would be doing the genre a terrible injustice.
The reality is that escape rooms are one of the most addictive forms of entertainment to have emerged in the 21st century.
Little wonder then that the last five years have seen them explode across Kent.
The blend of puzzle-solving, teamwork and the desire to escape reality - let alone the room itself - is proving a winning formula; often transforming previously empty properties into thriving businesses.
Sitting at the top of the Tripadvisor pile is The Escapement in Margate.
Perched on the corner of Cliftonville's Northdown Road, its exterior gives little away.
Inside, depending on your fancy, you can experience a pirate, Egyptian or mining adventure, all with engaging back stories and energetic, friendly hosts.
All feel as though you have walked straight onto a film set, complete with special effects. Little wonder, then, its ranked by users as the best in the UK as well as Kent.
Lewis Hunt, who, along with partner Mica Dougan, has run the venue since July 2017, is something of an aficionado of the genre having recently returned from playing some of the top games in Europe.
But he feels the term 'escape room' doesn't do the industry any favours.
He explains: "When speaking to customers I always say 'think Crystal Maze, mixed with a murder mystery and a theatre production and it's an amalgamation of those things'.
"It's like a theatre set with no actors, but you play the part, and the puzzles make you the protagonist and the story teller and it has nothing to do with the rooms or escaping.
"The biggest mistake was whoever called it an escape room. Had we adopted the Russian term, which is mystery game, that would be far more appealing.
"But there is no other activity which can span so many generations.
"We've had five generations in one room before and they can all contribute, create a memory and have fun together.
"There's nothing else quite like that. It doesn't matter about fitness or intelligence you're just going somewhere to have some fun whether you're good at it or not."
Escape rooms' success is perhaps intrinsically linked with social media and sites such as review websites.
Six years ago, when Kent had no venues, the only two escape rooms in London - HintHunt and clueQuest - were ranked numbers one and two as the capital's most popular attractions on Tripadvisor. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it also sent thousands flocking to find out what the fuss was about.
But with the intricacies of each venue and puzzle a closely guarded secret - no-one wants their sense of discovery spoilt - reviews could only hint at what lay within. Hence rave recommendations fanned the fires of popularity. Their explosion across the country was only a matter of time.
"We were one of the first in the county," explains Chris Knell, who, since October 2016, has run Escape Kent in Canterbury as well as the more Crystal Maze-inspired Prison Island in Maidstone. "My brother and I were on holiday in Germany several years ago and we played one over there and we loved it and the concept.
"We looked for them in England and realised there weren't many about but were starting to build -mainly in London.
"It just felt right so we put a lot of money and time into it and it's paid off.
"More and more people are looking for unique and quirky activities instead of going out for drinks and food. They want something more alternative."
And it is their very simple premise, deftly executed, which makes them so instantly addictive.
Inside each room will be a series of puzzles and conundrums to try and solve.
'More and more people are looking for unique and quirky activities instead of going out for drinks and food...'
Typically, each solved puzzle will provide you with a key or a combination to unlock padlocks which in turn reveal further clues - or even additional rooms.
All the while, you are monitored by video and voice by the game room controllers who will provide hints if you get stuck (not to mention let you out if you need the loo - you're not really stuck in there).
Within an hour you should have solved the problems - or been helped to do so - allowing you to 'escape'.
One group photo later - ideal for your social media feeds - and away you go.
The origins of the escape room can be found in the world of video games - point and click adventures where puzzles were the challenge for progression.
Quite when the first escape room emerged is up for a little debate. Adventure rooms in the US emerged in 2003, but it is widely accepted that it was Japan, in 2007, where the first permanent room opened for business.
Unsurprisingly, the concept proved a hit and it spread across the Far East before its tentacles stretched globally.
In Europe, it was Hungary to first capitalise on the craze and the rest, as they say, is history.
But each newcomer has a heavy weight of responsibility on their shoulders. A poor experience for those dipping their toes into the genre for the first time can put them off for life - damaging all others in the county vying for their trade.
Adds Chris Knell: "Fortunately, the county is known to be one of the best areas in the country for escape rooms.
"There are a lot of high quality games, where people have put in a lot of time and effort.
"There are some out there which are not so good, where people have jumped on the bandwagon, but I think they will eventually die out."
Lewis Hunt agrees. "I think Kent is at saturation point," he explains, "there are 27 venues in Kent now and this year already we've seen a lot of movement with some rooms downsizing and some up for sale.
"But also brand new ones are opening. What we're seeing is that you need a creative mind to create it and then a business mind who can run it.
"Once you're established it’s much easier, but what we're finding is that it's a lot more difficult for new businesses to get themselves established.
"So those coming in now need to think completely outside of the box with something new which people are going to talk about.”
The Escapement is hoping its new site in Broadstairs - which should open with four new rooms in April - will set a new benchmark with a “monumental” investment.
"There are lots of online forums where we all want to help one another,” adds its boss.
"I don't care if one opens down the road that's better than me - because that's good for business as people will play there and then come and play mine."
The top 10 escape rooms in Kent
1. The Escapement, Margate
2. Get Lost, Dover
3. Hysteria, Chatham
4. Escape Kent, Canterbury
5. Pressure Point, Ashford
6. Clever Dilemma, Faversham
7. The Panic Room, Gravesend
8. TimeQuest, Paddock Wood
9. CTRL ALT ESC, Margate
10. Clue Cracker, Tunbridge Wells
Source: Tripadvisor, as of January 23. All have the top average 5-star review.
More by this authorChris Britcher