The Time I Stumbled Upon Britannia Manor Part I

Sometimes the most interesting discoveries are waiting for you, right under your nose.  All you have to do is look for them.  This is the story of one of those discoveries.

When I was living in Austin in 2010, my daily commute to work took me down a busy highway deemed “one of the most scenic urban drives in central Texas.”  The road winds through massive hills where the rock has been dramatically cut back to accommodate the highway, passes over Lake Austin and through Barton Springs, and provides such breathtaking views that the drive to and from work was often one of my favorite parts of the day.  Most days, I was blessed with even more time to admire the view as the route was frequently clogged up with rush-hour traffic.  It was during one of these stop-and-go afternoons that I was able to notice something in the scenery that piqued my interest.

As you approach the famous rust-colored Pennybacker Bridge heading North, you can see the beautiful hills and bluffs that flank Lake Austin.  At the tops of these hills, massive luxury homes are perched precariously, making you wonder what type of people can afford a house and view of that scale.  But it was something else near the bottom of a hill, closer to the water, that I was curious about:  a plain concrete “tower” (for lack of a better word to describe it).  It could have just turned out to be part of any random construction or production site, so it shouldn’t have seemed so unusual.  Maybe it just looked out of place.  Or maybe (definitely) it reminded me of the final challenge in The Mole U.S. Season 2 where one player had to find their way to a “crooked castle” in the countryside with nothing but a GPS and the help of the locals.

Street view
From Google Street View. The Tower (arrow pointing left) and the Mansion (arrow pointing down)

I looked for the tower every day as I drove home from work and wondered what it might be or how to get there.  When my husband and I started carpooling to work together, he also noticed an exceptionally large mansion at the top of the hill above the tower.  I hadn’t really taken a good look before, but it was clearly at least three times the size of the other fancy homes in the surrounding area.

mansion
A photo I took from the car one day. The mansion is on the right.

I found the area where I thought the tower and mansion were on Google Maps, but there was nothing really descriptive there, just a little marker with the words “Scare for a Cure,” which turned out to be a local haunted house.  Maybe the tower was part of the haunted house construction or something?

A few months later, I finally made time to take a drive and explore the area myself, for fun. I made my way up the steep mountain roads and began exploring the road where the gigantic house was supposed to be.  I saw a lot of other fancy houses along the way, but one in particular caught my eye–it had a section with a domed roof and black gargoyles perched at each corner.

I filed it away in my brain as another interesting discovery and continued down the road until I reached the truly large mansion we had seen from the highway.  The building was still under construction, and I figured it had to be some kind of resort or hotel due to its size and ornateness.

There was a road next to it that I recognized as the road that was supposed to lead down to the tower, according to Google Maps.  There was a small sign at the start of the road that read “Scare for a Cure,” so I drove on down, hoping to see the tower and maybe some haunted house construction (another area of interest for me).  Unfortunately, I didn’t get very far before reaching a “Private Road – No Trespassing” sort of sign, where I had to turn around and go home.

distance
The distance between the mansion (top) and the tower and surrounding complex (bottom)

When I got home, I did some research on Scare for a Cure, which turned out to be an interactive, story-driven haunted house experience that sounded just plain amazing.  It wasn’t long before I was completely sold on attending the haunted house in October and more than ready to buy the “red-level” tickets that give guests an even more interactive and physically challenging experience.  After I was done geeking out over the haunted house, I looked around the website a little more and found a blog post talking about the gaming industry.  My husband was trying to break in at the time, so the post piqued my interest.  The article talked about how volunteering is a great way to network with professionals in your desired field, and that Scare for a Cure happened to be made up of a lot of game industry veterans.

“SCARE’s roots go back over 20 years to Britannia Manor, when Richard Garriott used to turn his own mansion into a haunted house. But being a master game designer, Richard was not content to have guests spend 10 minutes walking though a house with monsters jumping out and yelling “BOO!” Britannia Manor was an hour-long live, interactive adventure game, complete with a storyline, actors, special effects, clues to find, and puzzles to solve. In the finale, players could either save the world from a powerful supernatural entity, or doom the entire world by their failure.”

The name Richard Garriott was not familiar to me, but he sure sounded interesting so I did a bit of Google searching on him.  His Wikipedia article revealed that he was the creator of the famous Ultima game series.  I enjoyed many hours of the MMORPG (a term which Garriott himself coined) Ultima Online as a kid, and here I had found Lord British himself.  I also learned that he’s a huge space buff: In 2008, he became the sixth “space tourist”, spending eleven days in space.  While there, he placed a geocache and filmed the first sci-fi movie in space.  In 2009, he officiated the first zero-gravity wedding.  He’s also a trustee for the X PRIZE Foundation.  The more I read about Garriott, the more it started to feel like I was watching a Dos Equis “The Most Interesting Man in the World” commercial.

When I ran a Google search on Garriott, imagine my surprise when the results turned up the very gargoyle-guarded house I had driven by earlier that day.  It was Britannia Manor, Garriott’s famous mansion and former seasonal haunted house.  The dome on top is actually an observatory, a testament to Garriott’s fascination with space.

The observatory of Britannia Manor

And it wasn’t long before more research lead me to discover that the nearby triple-sized mansion under construction, what I had assumed was going to be a resort or hotel, was actually a new mansion Garriott is building, “Britannia Manor Mark III.”

Britannia Manor Mark III
The truly impressive Britannia Manor Mark III

As it turned out, Garriott owns a sizeable piece of land that inlcudes the large mansion and spans all the way down to the mysterious tower.  According to Kotaku’s Mike Fahey who got an inside-look at the property, that tower is going to be the central point of the estate and is planned to have an observatory on top.  At first, this didn’t make any sense to me as the tower is a considerable distance south of the mansion itself.  But, also according to the Kotaku article, “The house will eventually consist of three separate buildings, connected via a network of underground passages.”

The mere mention of underground passages is enough to get my mystery-loving heart racing, but Garriott’s plans don’t stop there.  The swimming pool will extend into swimmable passages that reach various parts of the house.  The air ducts will all be made of cement and therefore all “crawlable.”  Room-sized elevators.  Rotating rooms.  Secret passageways.  Retractable roofs with elevating rooms underneath.  When you read accounts of the plans for this place, you have to wonder if the author is just pulling your leg (but you really hope he isn’t).  It sounds the kind of place a group of strangers get invited to for a dinner party and start disappearing one by one.  Coincidentally, it sounds like my dream house, or at least somewhere I would love to visit and explore.

construction
Construction on the mansion (left) and tower area (right)

So back to the thing that got my research this far:  Scare for a Cure.  Garriott has several connections to the event.  Many of the people who helped turn his first mansion into a haunted house 20 years ago went on to found and run the present-day Scare for a Cure.  Garriott is also listed as a sponsor for the haunted house, and with good reason—the event is held on his expansive property.

After all my sleuthing and discoveries, there was no way I wasn’t attending Scare for a Cure that year.  I’m a big haunted house fan to begin with, but adding in a chance to check out some of Britannia Manor Mark III up close made this opportunity impossible to pass up.  Nick bought me red-level tickets for my birthday and we took the now-familiar drive up the mountains toward Coldwater Canyon Drive.

Click here for Part II, the thrilling conclusion to this mysterious tale!

2 comments on The Time I Stumbled Upon Britannia Manor Part I

  • Notta_Robot

    Just an FYI – the castle you labeled as Britannia Manor Mark III is NOT what you believe it is – Britannia Manor Mark I I I is further down Coldwater, and is nowhere complete.

    • clavicarius (author)

      Oh, interesting! Is it where I have the Tower marked? That would make more sense, since that’s where SCARE for a Cure was located, and I knew it was a part of the Manor but the two sites seemed quite far apart.

      Is the other site just an unrelated mansion that happens to have an observatory?

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