As a wedding present, our friends Louise and Jamie very kindly took us on a weekend away to Manchester, where among other things we visited the Crystal Maze Live Experience!
The Crystal Maze was one of my favourite TV programmes when I was a child, and it stands the test of time. If you’d told 10 year old me that one day I’d experience it for myself, I’d have been astonished.
So my expectations were already high. But they were surpassed. Let me emphasise this: The Crystal Maze Experience was way better than I expected. Which was already very good.
Unfortunately, phones are not allowed inside the maze. So you’ll have to take my word for a lot of this!
Our friends Richard and Lucy came with us. They formed part of our team of six. Louise and Jamie sat it out because Louise is pregnant, and it turns out pregnant people aren’t allowed in the Crystal Maze. So we were teamed up with two other people we’d never met before. We nominated one of them as our team captain — it turned out his friend was taking him out to celebrate his upcoming wedding!
We probably had to nominate him to help him feel less excluded from the group. But in retrospect, it put him in a difficult position because he didn’t know what our strengths and weaknesses are. There were a few instances where I knew we were in trouble as soon as I saw what the game was, and who was doing it.
Watching Alex, who has dyslexia, trying to tackle a giant word puzzle, with five people all shouting different instructions to her from a hatch in the wall, was a particular low point. Having said that, when she had to make a cube out of 3D Tetris-style blocks, being the master of cupboard Tetris, I knew she would make light work of it.
Our “maze master” — the Richard O’Brien of our journey — was impressively good as well. He was charismatic and quick-witted, and you could imagine him actually being on TV.
The sets are also impressively immersive. It actually felt like I was in the TV show — that’s how good it was.
It’s a huge operation. People discreetly reset the games immediately after we played them and moved on, because another group enters the maze every 15 minutes.
That means also that there are multiple maze masters, presumably all professional actors playing this energetic role in a neverending sausage factory of mazedom. Not that it feels like you’re in a sausage factory. That’s what’s so impressive about it.
It took us a while to get into the swing of things. I was first in to play a game. Without wanting to spoil things, I found myself in a scenario where I had no instructions, but in retrospect what I had to do was quite obvious. But none of us had cottoned on to what we had to do. We weren’t in the (medieval) zone yet!
There was a point early on where it felt like we were being given crystals out of sympathy (or fear that we wouldn’t have much time in the crystal dome). Richard got locked in twice trying to do the same physical challenge (this was another less-than-ideal game–player pairing). He got the crystal back by playing a game of rock paper scissors in which he was told what to choose. Thankfully there wasn’t too much of that, or it would have felt patronising.
For some reason, one of the puzzles that I completed (a miniature escape game) earned us two crystals.
Our progress greatly improved, and we ended up with 10 crystals from 16 games. That got us 50 seconds in the crystal dome.
I was actually inside the crystal dome. Actually jumping about in the air collecting bits of foil. A childhood dream come true.
It’s harder than it seems. The foil was frustratingly light and difficult to grab.
But it hardly mattered. I’d been inside the Crystal Maze, and the crystal dome. And you know what? I know I’m going to do it again one day. Because it was that good. And because we want to take Louise and Jamie back. And I am a big child.
You bet we took some “souvenir” tokens (they got trapped in Alex’s hood, honest) and a crystal from the gift shop!
While we were in Manchester…
We had the whole weekend in Manchester, so it was a chance to briefly explore the city. I’d passed through a couple of times before, but never really visited it properly. So I was excited to finally sample it!
We’d taken the train after work on a Friday. Louise and Jamie brought a game called You’ve Got Crabs for us to play on the way.
In this game, you pair up with a partner and try to exchange secret messages when you collect a set of cards. Being skilled at non-verbal communication is key. When you think you’ve received the secret message, you shout out “you’ve got crabs” — which is quite fun on the crowded TransPennine Express.
I partnered with Louise and we were both 🔥 at this game. I think we discovered that I am the Louise in our relationship, and Jamie is the Alex in his.
After arriving late in Manchester, we checked into our Airbnb in the Northern Quarter. It was very stylish!
After that excitement, we ate at a place nearby. It was called Yard and Coop. It was like a hipster Nandos. All the food was chicken.
The beer was some appropriately fowl-tasting IPA.
The next morning I felt pretty bad, hence the shades.
We were all fascinated by this dilapidated tattoo parlour with many ghost signs seemingly from different eras.
We dropped into the Manchester Craft and Design Centre.
There was lots of Morris dancing in public areas. That’s because Manchester was hosting the Joint Morris Organisations National Day of Dance.
We visited the John Rylands Library, which has a really cool modern extension.
I think it’s very brave architecture, impressively pulled off.
We went to the Museum of Science and Industry. It’s massive, and we had nothing like enough time to fully explore it.
There they have the Rocket steam engine.
We put ourselves on the monitors there.
I particularly enjoyed the section about communication technologies.
In the evening, we went out drinking in really hipster places. We were in a bar called Soup Kitchen when Lucy accidentally jumped on me when removing herself from her stool, and made me drop my stout on the floor.
Then we went to this nightclub called Twenty Twenty Two, which had ping-pong tables.
It bills itself as “Manchester’s No.1 Ping Pong Bar”. It makes me wonder what the other ping pong bars are like.
The clocks changed while we were there, and all of a sudden it was 2:30am and we realised we should probably go to bed.
…But not before ending up in this super hipster cocktail bar called Convenience Store, which was set up to look like a bad USian grocery store. Unfortunately, it was an actually bad cocktail bar, where the barman was totally unable to improvise.
The next day there was some street party being put on by a group calling themselves Extinction Rebellion. None of us had ever heard of them before. No-one was at their street party, so we felt a bit sorry for them.
They seem to have made more of a name for themselves since then.
We went for breakfast at the Koffee Pot. I treated myself to a full English breakfast. The Bury black pudding was added for free for those who dare! No problem for me.
Lucy took us to this weird shopping arcade full of goths called Affleck’s. I found a shop full of offensive shirts.
But in another corner of the arcade was this mannequin of Frank Sidebottom, along with a mosaic of Chris Sievey that apparently contains some of his ashes.
I’ve since discovered that there was a Frank Sidebottom / Chris Sievey exhibition in Manchester. We were visiting Manchester the weekend Being Frank was premiered. Somehow it had all passed me by. Gutted I missed this exhibition!
But we did get to take in some art because we visited the Manchester Art Gallery. I particularly enjoyed the Martin Parr photography exhibition.
They also had this hexagonal ping-pong table, which enabled all six of us to play at once. Unfortunately, they only had five bats. So I went to the adjacent colouring-in table, emptied the container of crayons and used it as a bat.
We were getting quite good at ping-pong by this stage.
There was just time to collect our bags from our Airbnb before we had to catch our train.
On the way back to the station, I spent ages looking at this wondering why there was a mural of Jerry Springer. It took me a while to figure out it was actually of Tony Wilson.
I’d visited Manchester a couple of times before, but I’d never really explored it fully. I still don’t really think I got a feel for the place. A weekend is not really long enough, so hopefully I’ll be back for a bigger exploration soon.