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'Downton Abbey' castle opening for summer tours

Highclere Castle, the set of the hit period drama "Downton Abbey," is becoming a popular tourist destination for fans from all over the world. NBC's Keir Simmons reports.

If you’ve been dreading the prospect of having to patiently wait until January for “Downton Abbey’s” third season to air, you can now stop pouting, pour yourself some tea and book a trip to England. Highclere Castle, where the critically acclaimed drama is filmed, will be open for tours Sunday through Thursday beginning July 1.

Designed by architect Sir Charles Barry, Highclere Castle is home to the real-life aristocrats Lady Fiona and Lord Geordie Carnarvon, whose family have been on the castle’s grounds since 1679. Only an hour-and-a-half drive from London, you’ll be able to explore their impressive home with tours through the saloon, dining room, library, music room, drawing room, smoking room, bedrooms, and the castle’s gardens and woodlands. Pre-booking tickets online is encouraged, and prices for a tour of the castle, exhibition and gardens range from about £9.50 (US $14) for children to £16 (US $25) for adults. 

The massive gardens are undoubtedly majestic — hosting “riotous displays of color” as the website advertises — but it’s really the inside of the castle that houses the rarest of beauties.

The 1635 portrait of King Charles I by Anthony van Dyck that’s so often seen behind "Downton Abbey's" Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), hangs earnestly in the dining room, seeming perfectly in place within the tremendous castle. But this barely scratches the surface of what’s in store, according to Lady Carnarvon.

“That painting is particularly fine, but there are three Van Dycks in the dining room,” Lady Carnarvon told the Los Angeles Times. “There are 15th-century Italian embroideries in the Music Room, and 18th-century silk bed hangings, and 400 years worth of European and English paintings and furniture throughout the castle. Not to mention those 5,000-year-old antiquities from Egypt.”

Although most television shows are shot in a studio, “Downton Abbey” films almost exclusively on-location, which means that you can enjoy the beauty of the castle and explore the show’s actual sets all in one place.

However, it also means that the cast and crew are constantly bustling about the castle with their cameras and equipment when they’re shooting. Fortunately, Lady Carnarvon has found this to be quite minor compared to the greater rewards of hosting “Downton Abbey” in her home.

“The best part has been sharing this romantic castle and home with so many people from around the world,” she told the Times. “And ‘Downton’ has helped revitalize an interest in history."

Julian Fellowes, the creator of "Downton Abbey" -- the British export that has America buzzing -- and Lady Fiona, Countess of Carnarvon, on the success of the show.

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