The real ‘Downton Abbey’

Claudine Zap

Fans may be mourning the end of the season of the Masterpiece Classic hit "Downton Abbey," but for those who can't wait to get their fix of the period drama until the new episodes next year, there's always Highclere Castle.

The real-life, operating castle serves as a main character in the PBS show. And it's open to ticket-holding tourists. The castle, located in England's southern county of Hampshire, about an hour by train from London, is home to an earl and countess and has been in the family since 1679.

Reservations are available now for tours of the sumptuous Victorian house and gardens during the summer months. A tour of the castle, gardens, and exhibit space works out to be about $26.

The country estate will be familiar to anyone who watches the show. Along with the imposing formal dining room and a library that boasts 5,600 books, the house contains some 300 rooms, 50 to 80 of which are bedrooms, and three main staircases.

That's right, the countess doesn't know how many rooms make up the house. As Lady Fiona put it to the Telegraph, "I suppose if you know how many rooms you've got, you haven't got a very big house." (You can practically hear Maggie Smith delivering that line with an eyebrow raised.)

The saloon is frequently the backdrop of "Downton Abbey" scenes, outfitted in Spanish leather and 50-foot-high ceilings.

"It's possibly the most important Victorian House still lived in in England today," says the eighth Countess of Carnarvon. The building was redesigned in the 19th century by architect Sir Charles Barry, who also designed England's Houses of Parliament.

The estate also houses an exhibition of Egyptian tomb treasures, open to the pubic. The fifth Earl of Carnarvon helped discover Tutankhamun's tomb in 1922 with Howard Carter.

Julian Fellowes, creator of the series and friend of the countess, had Highclere Castle in mind when he wrote the script. The story begins in 1912, so there are modern conveniences, such as electricity, telephones, and automobiles, but still an army of servants who run the "downstairs."

The show sometimes mimics the house's history. The fifth Countess of Carnarvon, who came to Highclere with fabulous wealth, was the model for the fictitious Lady Cora Crawley. As in the TV story, she converted the house into a hospital during World War I.

The castle's main income is from tourism, weddings, and corporate events. And filming of the show, of course. The castle receives 60,000 to 70,000 visitors annually, and an additional 20,000 to 30,000 on the grounds for concerts and various events.

If England is too far to go even for those who are missing the TV show, the Viking Hotel in Newport, R.I. (hometown of Lady Grantham's mother, played by Shirley MacLaine), is serving a special "Downton Abbey" high tea on weekend afternoons through March 24. (Reservations are advised.)

The scrumptious-sounding finger sandwiches and scones are served by restaurant supervisor Dan Vanwaus, a fan of the show, who dresses up as the character Carson the butler. "I love the show," he told Yahoo! in a phone conversation. "I'm fixated with it. I can't wait for the new (season) to come out."