The original Ashes urn left the UK last night for a rare promotional tour of Australia ahead of the crunch cricket series with England.

The tiny, delicate urn, and 30 other cricketing artefacts dating back to 1882, were carefully loaded on to a Virgin Atlantic flight from Heathrow.

England's Ashes-winning captain Michael Vaughan saw the flight off ahead of the three-month tour which will see the urn exhibited in museums across Australia.

The urn will be transported around Australia by Virgin Blue, the airline's low-cost carrier, and will be accompanied by MCC curator Adam Chadwick and historian Glenys Williams.

It will be only the third time since 1927 that the four-inch terracotta pot has left the MCC's base at Lord's.

It was displayed in London's Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1970s and went to Australia in 1988 to mark the country's bicentenary.

Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson said: "Everyone at Virgin Atlantic is very proud to be given the honour of carrying the Ashes urn to Australia.

"I am really excited that millions of cricket-mad Australians will be given the chance to see this world famous artefact again."

Keith Bradshaw, MCC secretary and chief executive, said: "The Ashes Exhibition is a hugely ambitious project.

"The urn, and associated artefacts, will be covering over 26,000 miles on their tour around Australia, and we are extremely grateful to Virgin Atlantic, as well as Travelex, the exhibition sponsor, for their support."

The original urn dates back to the 1882 game between the two countries at the Oval when it was given to England captain Ivo Bligh, later to become Lord Darnley, after the Aussies won the series.

The Sporting Times carried a mock obituary to English cricket which concluded: "The body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia."

The urn, which is said to contain the remains of the bails and stumps from the Oval Test, was donated to the MCC in 1927 by Lord Darnley's widow.