Universiteit Leiden

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‘We add a bit of escape room to our lessons’

Tommy Hopstaken and Jochem Haverhoek run an escape room in Kruithuisje, a medieval tower on what was once the perimeter canal in Leiden. They are also secondary-school teachers and make good use of their escape room experience in their lessons. How do their degrees in Dutch and Astronomy come in use?

‘This is historical moss,’ Jochem says as he points to the medieval wall. The two are glad to be standing in front of their escape room, which after months of closure reopened to the public on 1 June. Escaperoom Leiden is in the historical tower on Jan van Houtkade. The tower was built in 1485 and was part of the old city wall. Tommy and Jochem have transformed the inside into a Rembrandt studio, where people have an hour to discover the secrets of the Dutch master.

Jochem Haverhoek and Tommy Hopstaken.

Mouldy old tower

How was the escape room born? In 2015, Tommy went to an escape room with a group of friends and found it an ‘epic concept.’ ‘It’s a combination of devising good stories and games.’ Tommy initially had his eye on Zijlpoort, but that didn’t work out. Then someone from the Municipality suggested he may be able to rent the tower, better known as Kruithuisje, on Jan van Houtkade. Tommy brought his good friend Jochem along to take a look. ‘The tower was dirty, damp and mouldy,’ says Tommy. ‘But I immediately thought: “This is it!” The only thing is I’m not very good with my hands, and a whole bunch of puzzles had to be made.’

Back in time

Jochem: ‘I also immediately saw the potential and asked Tommy if he couldn’t use some help.’ Having given the tower a thorough clean, they spent one-and-a-half months developing the storyline. The theme would be Rembrandt. A very Leiden subject, but also known internationally, so interesting to tourists. The permit was quick to arrive, partly because they want to teach visitors something about the history of the building, the only remaining wall tower of an original 33. Jochem: ‘From the moment the front door opens, we take our visitors back in time. We tell them about the history and gradually weave our escape-room story into this.’

Tommy Hopstaken (33) studied Dutch.

Dutch and Astronomy

Having graduated with a degree in Dutch, Tommy spent a few years working for a communication agency before deciding to do teacher training. As well as escape-room owner, he is now a Dutch teacher. Jochem studied Astronomy, did teacher training in Amsterdam and is a physics teacher. To what extent do their degrees come in use in the escape room? Tommy: ‘In Dutch you study stories, and a good storyline is what makes a good escape room. I also write the texts for the website and leaflets. My thesis was about humour in speeches, and I’ve injected a bit of humour into the escape room.’

Jochem Haverhoek (39) studied Astronomy.

Electronic widgets

Jochem: ‘Astronomy isn’t a practical degree, but you do learn to think technically. I’ve always been interested in electronics, so I built a lot of hidden electronic widgets into the escape room.’ He also followed the elective in science-based business with a specialisation in communication. ‘That course taught me the principles of entrepreneurship. Some astronomy researchers were rather critical of this communication option at the time. They thought that research was all that mattered. Mad, because to get research on the map you need good lecturers and communication people. I raised this with the programme. Luckily, there’s a better understanding of the importance of communication nowadays.’

Corona crisis

Back to the escape room. It was popular right from the off, says Tommy, which was intense. ‘During the week we were working as teachers and we were then spending the whole weekend from early in the morning to late at night in the tower. We rapidly found a number of students and now have a staff of around eight.’ But then the corona crisis reared its head in March and the escape room had to close. Tommy: ‘It was unclear for a long time whether we would be eligible for government support because the escape room sector hasn’t been around for long. In the end we were deemed eligible, which was fortunate because we still had to pay our rent and fixed outgoings.’

Corona measures

They have implemented an extra cleaning regime and reduced the maximum group size from seven to four. Jochem: ‘Before corona we would have over 20 groups per week, whereas now it’s barely six. It will take a long time before we’re back to the old level, if at all. We do have some reserves, so we’ll manage for a bit longer, particularly because we made the conscious decision to carry on working as teachers: teaching is our passion.’

Escape room in class

The two sometimes add a bit of escape room to their lessons. Jochem: ‘It’s amazing how motivated students become if you place a locked wooden chest on the table and tell them that the answer to question 3d is inside. They have to answer other questions to get the key to the chest.’ 

Tommy: ‘I’ve done the odd grammar escape room that involves placing assignments throughout the school that are revealed through a secret code.’ 

Escape room about dementia

Jochem and Tommy occasionally develop escape rooms for other parties. For a healthcare trainer, they converted a caravan into the home of Harry, a fictional character with dementia who keeps on losing his things. Care workers did fun tasks while learning more about dementia. Jochem: ‘Here too we could combine our teaching experience with escape-room elements.’

Student days

The two know each other from their student house, Kaiserstraat 22D. Jochem: ‘Some people advise against starting a business with friends, but our skills are so complementary that we never get in each other’s way.’

What kind of a student were you? Tommy: ‘I was almost a model student and dutifully finished my degree within four years. I really enjoyed it and was active in the NNP study association for Dutch. We also had a fantastic student house. None of us were members of student associations, but some of us did play for the SKC volleyball club.’

Tight reins

Jochem: ‘It was an enormous student house with 20 students. You might think it was a complete hole but it wasn’t. The other seniors and I kept a tight rein on things. No one smoked and we were all sporty. The SLS, the student accommodation foundation at the time, even told other student houses to follow the example of Kaiserstraat 22D. You’d never see binbags crawling with vermin in our hall.’

Text: Linda van Putten
Photos Monique Shaw

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