BY CHARLOTTE DAVEY
I appreciate that, in the grand scheme of ‘A Lifetime’, a four-year long relationship isn’t the most impressive feat. But in your early twenties, four years is enough time to transform from a reckless student who contributes little more to society than profound thoughts on the work of Virginia Woolf to a semi-functioning adult who pays tax, has a skincare routine, and owns a slow cooker.
As you change, so does your relationship. Gone are the pheromone-clouded days of snogging on public transport, yet you’re nowhere near the stage of perfunctory twice-annual birthday shags with socks on and the lights off. After three and a half years in a long-distance relationship, going on regular dates to make the most of fleeting weekend visits, my boyfriend and I moved in together and started taking each other’s company for granted.
It is this complacency that inspired the recent launch of Secret Dates: a bespoke couples’ dating service. Its founder, Michael Boham, found relationships start to stagnate around two years in: “After this point couples become less motivated by the prospect of making an impression.” So far, advances in dating tech have overlooked couples in favour of horny singles looking for matches. His solution? Secret Dates, a service for couples to build memories together without the pressure of planning. Couples simply head to dosecretdates.com, indicate whether they want an ‘active’ or ‘relaxed’ experience and why they want to use the service, hand over their money, and Secret Dates plan a bespoke date. After a week in which the pinnacle of our excitement had been when I extracted one of my boyfriend’s ingrown beard hairs with a pair of tweezers, it became apparent that this was exactly what we needed.
The day before our date, after an email ascertaining our tipple of choice (rum), Secret Dates texted me a cryptic poem: “You won’t be left clueless on this testing date, just make sure you leave enough time to escape.” The next morning, another message: “We hope you and your date are ready for tonight’s secret delight. Just make sure you’re prepared and perhaps grab something to bite.” Unsure if they meant a ball-gag or a sandwich, we ignored the last instruction.
Following directions sent to us half an hour before the date, we arrived at AIM Escape near Aldgate East. What ensued was an hour-long escape room experience, set in a torturer’s lair. Nothing says romance quite like having pillow cases pulled over your head, being manacled together, and then locked in a red-lit, dingy cell with a blood-spattered, gagged man shackled to the wall and an hour to solve clues that would lead to our escape. Uncovering a series of hidden clues enabled us to crack open a wardrobe into another terrifying chamber filled with levers, contraptions and jars full of dismembered limbs – as though C.S Lewis had somehow mixed up the manuscript for The Chronicles of Narnia with a Saw movie script. I spent the hour screaming and generally not being much help, while my boyfriend used 24 years of ingrained toxic masculinity to stop himself crying every time our gagged friend breathed too loudly. An exhilarating start to the night, despite the fact that with each door we unlocked, we were too apprehensive of being jumped out on by a wide-eyed, ketchup-covered drama school graduate to focus on the tasks at hand. We didn’t escape.
The next text came as soon as we’d been granted our freedom, while our eyes readjusted to the bright fluorescent lighting of the AIM Escape foyer. “You’ve done a spectacular job escaping one dating trip, and as partners in crime you’ll now need to serve the time.” We were presented with a 70cl bottle of Havana Club and sent down Brick Lane to our final destination: Alcotraz. To gain entry to this prison-themed bar, you have to don an orange boiler suit and sweet-talk a prison guard to let you smuggle in your bottle of choice in a pillow case. The bar is filled with booths decked out like barred prison cells. We were put through various humiliating but hilarious rituals by two ‘prison guards’, and plied with an array of cocktails made with our contraband alcohol.
It turns out the clue about ‘having a bite’ was too cryptic for us as we didn’t eat at the start of the night (not that we’d have had time), so I had to admit defeat after one cocktail. The barman kindly brought me mocktails, while my boyfriend gallantly worked his way through half a bottle of rum on an empty stomach and a work night. At 11pm we were turfed out onto the streets of Shoreditch to find our way home (via a kebab shop).
We talked non-stop about our bizarre night for days afterwards. Heading out of our comfort zone (the flat) has shown us what fun was to be had in trying something new together. Now we make a real effort to plan nights as a couple, affirming Michael’s view that the longer you’re together, the more important it is to share “frequent and more unique ‘date nights’ to maintain the spark”. Sure, Secret Dates had a few teething problems: the clues were so cryptic that we went hungry, and we arrived late at Alcotraz because their the timings didn’t account for the escape room overrunning. But ultimately, it does a great thing: giving couples an opportunity to reconnect. It’s just a shame we can’t afford to go every week.
Dates start at £60 per person for the Essential Date experience (venue entry, entertainment, food/drinks)