Monday, 24 September 2018

The Timekeeper's Return: The Reveal

It’s finally time to talk about what I’ve been spending nearly all of my days working on since early July, and it feels fantastic, because I have some very exciting news to share.
On 20th October, the opening day of the Canterbury Festival, a mixed-reality game that I have designed and written from scratch is coming to the heart of the city centre.
The Timekeeper’s Return is an immersive story-based treasure hunt, designed for all ages, in which players scan QR codes to discover secrets about different locations in Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter.
Here is the blurb used on the event’s promotional material, to give you an overview of what The Timekeeper’s Return is all about, and to whet your appetite:

Layers of history connected together, the Cathedral Quarter is a unique scaffold of stories; seemingly timeless. But one person, one object, one moment… can change its future forever.
When historical researcher Dr. Mia Augustina stumbles upon an astrolabe, an antique navigation device, she discovers that it holds a powerful secret - it can transport her back in time.
Lured into the labyrinth of time-travel and its perils, the astrolabe malfunctions as Mia learns the truth of our past – threatening the future and her return. She has a plan to recalibrate the device, but she’ll need your help.
Mia has recorded her stories from each journey into the past using a ‘triangulation marker’ – a sticker generated by the astrolabe with a QR code, which holds coordinates and information about its location.
Deciphering each one will enable you to navigate to the next, and once each triangulation marker has been scanned, the astrolabe can guide Mia back to the present with history restored.
Have you got what it takes to help Dr. Augustina uncover the mysteries of the astrolabe, and reveal the secrets of the Cathedral Quarter? You’ll need a keen eye for detail and a QR code scanner installed on a smartphone.
The Timekeeper’s Return begins at the compass in Longmarket Square. Get hunting on Saturday 20th October in Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter!

Everyone who finishes the treasure hunt will receive a small reward, and also be entered into a prize draw, with a really fantastic bunch of prizes being offered from local businesses, including:
Tickets for a group of four to see this year’s Christmas pantomime at the Marlowe Theatre
Meal for four at Chapter
Ray-Bans from Biggs Opticians
Champagne cream tea for two at Moat Tea Rooms
£100 gift voucher for The Chinaman
A pen fashioned from a 15th century joist extracted from the Cathedral, from Canterbury Cathedral Shop
£50 gift voucher for Antoine et Lili
£50 gift voucher for Canterbury Pottery
Canteen will also be offering a 10% discount on refreshments for all players on the day.
The hunt itself shouldn’t take much more than an hour to complete; and as it takes place right in the city centre, it should be easy to fit around the other events happening on the opening day of the Canterbury Festival.
Now I’ve covered the main details of the event, many of you reading this may not be familiar with what the Cathedral Quarter even is, so let me explain. In the same way that Guildhall St., Palace St., The Borough and Northgate (plus parts of Orange St. and Sun St.) have been re-branded as The King’s Mile, The Cathedral Quarter is the name now being given to the historic area containing Burgate and the streets that branch of it: half of Sun St., Mercery Lane, Butchery Lane, Iron Bar Lane and Canterbury Lane.
In my old job as an ambassador for Canterbury Business Improvement District, I attended most of the early meetings when the Cathedral Quarter was being established. As someone who spoke to all the businesses in the area on an everyday basis, hearing the issues they faced but also their energy, positivity and desire to enrich the city, I was keen to help in any way I could to breathe new life into this part of Canterbury.
In our efforts to define what we wanted the Cathedral Quarter brand to represent, we started by outlining what makes these streets so special. From a business perspective, the qualities that make this area unique are the high proportion of independent retailers, but also high-quality speciality products, such as the hand-made brogues at Loake Shoemakers, chic bohemian clothing at Antoine et Lili, or fine china gifts from The Chinaman. The service you get is personal, and those that serve you are deeply invested in the well-being of the area, either as the business owner themselves or as locals. Here is a recent promotional video which should give you a flavour of what the Cathedral Quarter is all about, from this perspective.
Meanwhile, to the eye of a pedestrian, the Cathedral Quarter is a jigsaw puzzle of different time periods that are visible in the built environment today. Of course, it is home to the medieval splendour of Canterbury Cathedral and its Christchurch Gate, alongside a number of very old buildings often formerly used as inns for pilgrims. Cobbled streets are some of the first images that come to mind. But as you walk up Burgate towards the ring road, you begin to notice a change in the architecture of the city. The streets between Butchery Lane and the ring road were devastated by bombing during WWII, and the post-war reconstruction effort embraced the modern design trends of the time, which you can see today in the concrete and straight edges of St. Thomas’ Church Hall and the often-overlooked building now occupied by Superdrug, which won a RIBA Bronze Award for its architecture in 1957.
During the early Cathedral Quarter meetings, there was a consensus that running events would be a shrewd method of generating interest about what is happening in this segment of the city. Even early on, the idea of a treasure hunt was suggested as an effective way for people find out what is in the Cathedral Quarter for themselves, by encouraging them to engage with the intriguing material landscape you can discover there. As you can gauge from the promotional video linked above, this sensory offering extends to the area’s businesses.
We knew any treasure hunt would need to be something fairly easy to implement – so not too technologically demanding – and also accessible enough for the general public. As I considered these different specifications, my focus started to centre on QR codes. Practically, most people now own a smartphone – or are close to someone who does – and QR code scanners can be freely installed on these devices (many ranges now actually come with QR scanners pre-installed). Everyone has seen these codes before and at least has an idea about what they are.
On a creative level, I’ve always been intrigued by QR codes because they’re so ‘in-your-face’, but indecipherable at the same time. They act almost as portals to another dimension, overlaying physical space with information that can only be accessed virtually.
Over the past couple of months, I’ve been doing a lot of research into the history of this part of Canterbury, but not just facts or snippets of knowledge. I wanted to find stories that would resonate with people emotionally, and particularly those that have left a residue in the built environment. There are few more poignant experiences than being able to see and touch something historic, knowing the depth of feeling behind it, and the significance it has had for people’s lived experiences.
Once I’d decided for certain that the event would be a story-based game, I settled on the concept of a time-travelling academic for the main character, and in particular a person who researches history. It needed to be someone who would naturally be interested in the traces of past lives and livelihoods in Canterbury, and someone with the passion to want to show other people what makes them fascinating. I imagined a smart, enthusiastic female protagonist, and after some deliberation arrived at the name Mia Augustina. It’s possible to find a few layers of meaning behind this name, but for me the overall goal was to make it something timeless, and in some ways cross-cultural – a name you could imagine someone having centuries ago, or perhaps in a far-off land.
As for the means of time travelling itself, it was quite a while later that I decided on the time machine being an astrolabe. While developing the main plot of the story, I began to ask myself some difficult questions about how the time travelling would actually happen. Where would this time machine come from? Why would an historian have one lying around, and how could they be the only person to know about it?
I figured that it would make sense, in the context of the story, if the device were some kind of artefact discovered during Mia’s research, which she has kept secret. An astrolabe seemed appropriate, again for its fantastical and timeless qualities (astrolabes were invented in ancient times, used widely in the medieval period and are still sought after today), but mainly for how they encapsulate the dimensions of space and time in a single object. Among their numerous uses, astrolabes allow you to calculate the position of stars on any given date, as well as the time of day based on their position. These attributes also made them important tools for navigation, as they allowed the user to work out their current latitude. I’ll let those who are interested dig deeper into the fictional background for themselves, but I will also say that Canterbury as a city has a long-running and intimate connection with astrolabes which is worth looking at.
You'll note that an astrolabe symbol features at the top of this blog post, as well as in all our advertising for the event. The graphics for all our promotional materials were designed by my brother Sam Lowe, principal designer at SDL Residential Design, who did a superb job at creating striking iconography that works well as a centrepiece for the event. One excellent feature of the design I should point out is the diamond shape positioned across the circle, which can perfectly hold a single QR code (QR codes can be scanned in any orientation). You'll be seeing more of this graphic soon!
As for the how story itself unfolds, in the spirit of not giving too much away, all I’ll say is that the plot advanced through each QR code ‘snippet’ follows Mia’s travels through time in the Cathedral Quarter: the people and places she encounters, their stories, and what she discovers about the astrolabe on her journey.
Looking back on the creative process behind this event, I feel immensely grateful and humbled by the faith that the Cathedral Quarter businesses and associates have put in me to lead the project. I would warmly encourage those who take part to use this event as an opportunity to meet the people ‘behind the cobbles’. Get to know them and hear their stories; find out why they do what they do, and why they’re passionate about their professions. It’s exactly the kind of people I have met through the Cathedral Quarter that make the city such a lovely place in which to live and work.
On a personal level, this has been a big step for me in terms of my artistic ambitions, having been given the opportunity to bring my ideas and imagination to such a wide public audience. I would be truly thankful for each and every one of you who plays this game. And in particular, I would love to hear your thoughts on the experience and what it means for you personally.
Before I sign off, I just want to mention that we’re going to try and run a couple of testing sessions with members of the public before October 20th, so if you’re interested in getting involved then please let me know.
If you have any questions about the event itself, press/publicity, the Cathedral Quarter, or even want someone to discuss Canterbury’s heritage and geography with, then please also get in touch. Though bear in mind that this next month is going to be incredibly busy for me!
Pop it in your calendar, mark yourself as ‘going’ on the Facebook event page, and share the news: The Timekeeper’s Return is coming to Canterbury’s Cathedral Quarter, 20th October 10am – 4pm. Your journey unfolds at Longmarket Square – what secrets await?

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