Downton Abbey star Lesley Nicol has been volunteering at a bear rescue centre in China during her time off from the hit period drama.

The British actress, who plays house cook Mrs. Patmore in the show, visited the Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Chengdu to spend three days working with animals at the sanctuary.

The bears are rescued from farms, where they are often kept in cramped cages and have tubes forced into their gall bladder to extract bile, which is used in traditional medicines, and the actress admits seeing the animals in such poor condition was an emotional experience for her.

She tells Britain's Weekend magazine, "When you see them engage with you after all they've suffered, it's the biggest lesson of forgiveness. I felt ashamed to be the species that did this to them. It's a joy to give them pleasure."

Nicol ended up in the kitchen preparing meals and feeding the bears at the centre: "The bears love watermelon, apple and carrots, so we chopped up chunks with a hatchet. When they're rescued, they don't know what it is to be a bear. They have hammocks, tunnels, pools and climbing frames; it's a giant playground. Disneyland for bears..."

She adds of Animals Asia, the charity behind the centre, "Not everyone will become involved in the charity. That's fine. But I'd do anything for (this organisation). You see their utter commitment. I had a rare experience and I'm desperate to go back. I didn't want to leave."