Jasper James

England's university towns have some of the country's best museums outside of London. This five-day drive takes you through pastoral landscapes and to nine superb collections— covering everything from art to zoology.

April 02, 2009

DESTINATIONS Norwich, Cambridge, Oxford, Bath TRAVEL TIME Five days START/END London TOTAL DISTANCE 487 miles RESOURCES Buy a detailed map ($8.50) at www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk. For additional information—including links to university towns' tourism sites—see www.heritagecities.com or www.visitbritain.com

DAY 1 London to Norwich
DISTANCE 150 miles

The drive from the M25, London's orbital highway, to Norwich passes through countryside dotted with farms. Among Norwich's chief attractions is the newly expanded Norman Foster–designed Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts (University of East Anglia; 44-1603/593-199; www.scva.ac.uk). The collection here spans centuries and continents: a Francis Bacon painting hangs next to a reliquary head from Gabon.

Spend the night at the castle-like De Vere Dunston Hall (Ipswich Rd.; 44-1508/ 470-444; www.devereonline.co.uk; doubles from $275), a gabled red-brick mansion.

DAY 2 Norwich to Cambridge
DISTANCE 65 miles

Backtrack southwest to Cambridge on the A11 through the Brecks, a 370-square-mile wilderness of Scotch pine and purple-blossomed heath. The old-fashioned Royal Cambridge (Trumpington St.; 44-1223/ 351-631; www.forestdale.com; doubles from $270), next to the university, is an ideal base. First stop: the Fitzwilliam Museum (Trumpington St.; 44-1223/332-900; www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk), Cambridge's über-museum. Make a beeline for the Italian paintings gallery to see the Annunciation by Domenico Veneziano, painted in the 1440's for the altarpiece of a church in Florence.

Eavesdrop on high-octane conversations about applied mathematics and artificial intelligence over lunch at Browns (Trumpington St.; 44-1223/461-655; lunch for two $30). Next, pop into Cambridge's Museum of Zoology (Downing St.; 44-1223/ 336-650; www.zoo.cam.ac.uk/museum), a trove of animal skeletons and fossils, to see Charles Darwin's specimens from the Beagle voyage. At the Scott Polar Research Institute (Lensfield Rd.; 44-1223/336-552; www.spri.cam.ac.uk), you can pore over exhibits relating to the Arctic and Antarctic, including Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition diaries from 1902 to 1922. For dinner, have pizza at Zizzi (47–53 Regent St.; 44-1223/365-599; dinner for two $40).

DAY 3 Cambridge to Oxford
DISTANCE 83 miles

En route to Oxford on the M40, watch a landscape of carefully tended wheat fields, pastures, and villages sweep by; it's as if every woolly sheep and bale of hay has been precisely placed for maximum aesthetic effect. Drop your bags at the Eastgate Townhouse (High St.; 44-870/400-8201; www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk; doubles from $260), located within walking distance of the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments (St. Aldate's; 44-1865/276-139; www.bate.ox.ac.uk). The tight space here brims with 2,000 woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments, including a Swiss alpenhorn, one of the world's largest instruments. Christ Church Picture Gallery (St. Aldate's; 44-1865/276-172; www.chch.ox.ac.uk) nearby is a jewel box of Old Master paintings and drawings. The paintings are impressive, but it's the drawings—by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael—that dazzle.

After a quick bite at Oxford's outpost of Browns (5–11 Woodstock Rd.; 44-1865/ 511-995; lunch for two $30), head to the Ashmolean Museum (Beaumont St.; 44-1865/278-000; www.ashmol.ox.ac.uk), which contains art and antiquities from four millennia. Ask to see the silk-warp ikat coat, hung so that it resembles a giant tie-dyed butterfly, that the explorer Robert Shaw brought back from Turkistan. The Pitt Rivers Museum (S. Parks Rd.; 44-1865/270-927; www.prm.ox.ac.uk), one of the world's top ethnographic collections, comprises a dizzying array of objects—vitrines stuffed with shrunken heads from the Amazon, Hawaiian feather cloaks, even fishing lures.

Dine at Quod (92–94 High St.; 44-1865/ 202-505; dinner for two $60), a sleek restaurant a few doors from your hotel that serves everything from fisherman's pie to seafood risotto.

DAY 4 Oxford to Bath
DISTANCE 74 miles

A side effect of looking at art nonstop is that it soon becomes your frame of reference for seeing the rest of the world. During the 90-minute drive southwest to Bath, every view out the car window brings to mind an image from Art History 101. A herd of barrel-shaped Holsteins moving ponderously across a pasture recalls Stanley Spencer's 1936 Cows at Cookham, on display at the Ashmolean.

After a lunch at Fishworks (6 Green St.; 44-1225/448-707; lunch for two $40), continue on to the Holburne Museum (Great Pulteney St.; 44-1225/466-669; www.bath.ac.uk/holburne), which houses the treasures of Sir William Holburne, a 19th-century Bath collector of fine and decorative art.

Have dinner at Pasta Galore (31 Barton St.; 44-1225/463-861; dinner for two $50), which serves authentic dishes such as tagliatelle all'arrabbiata, and stay the night at the Victorian Tasburgh House Hotel (Warminster Rd.; 44-1225/425-096; www.bathtasburgh.co.uk; doubles from $165), overlooking the Kennet and Avon Canal.

DAY 5 Bath to London
DISTANCE 115 miles

An eastbound sprint on the M4 quickly returns you to London.

Tasburgh House Hotel

Pasta Galore

Fishworks

Quod Brasserie & Bar

Pitt Rivers Museum

The Pitt Rivers Museum, one of the world's top ethnographic collections, comprises a dizzying array of objects—vitrines stuffed with shrunken heads from the Amazon, Hawaiian feather cloaks, even fishing lures.

Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archaeology

The Ashmolean opened in 1683 as the world’s first public museum. It originated with a core group of natural history specimens that belonged to father-and-son gardeners, both named John Tradescant, who gave them to the antiquarian Elias Ashmole, who in turn presented the collection to the university in 1677.

London-based American architect Rick Mather won the competition to bring the Ashmolean into the 21st century. He removed makeshift additions, built in the late 19th century as temporary exhibition spaces, that were gloomy as well as searingly hot in summer and freezing in winter. By replacing these with an atrium crisscrossed by bridges that link the new galleries and fuse the six-floor extension to the handsome 1845 Neoclassical structure by Charles Cockerell, Mather has magically suffused the whole place with natural light. Architectural miracles like this don’t come cheap: the renovation cost $99 million. Mather restored Cockerell’s grand entrance, doubled the display space, and capped it with a rooftop restaurant and terrace that has already become a popular meeting place for town and gown. A couple of Oxford lads, Ben and Hugo Warner, operate the Ashmolean Dining Room; they’ve got a terrific contemporary English menu, a wine list from around the world, and sweeping views of the city.

Browns Bar & Brasserie Oxford

Christ Church Picture Gallery

Christ Church Picture Gallery nearby is a jewel box of Old Master paintings and drawings. The paintings are impressive, but it's the drawings—by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael—that dazzle.

Bate Collection of Musical Instruments

The tight space here brims with 2,000 woodwind, brass, and percussion instruments, including a Swiss alpenhorn, one of the world's largest instruments.

Mercure Eastgate Hotel Oxford

Zizzi, Cambridge

Scott Polar Research Institute

At the Scott Polar Research Institute, you can pore over exhibits relating to the Arctic and Antarctic, including Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition diaries from 1902 to 1922.

Museum of Zoology

An enchanting cabinet of zoological curiosities, this University College London museum is among the city’s best-kept secrets. Housed in an Edwardian library, the intriguing collection was first established in 1827 by zoology professor Robert Edmond Grant and now features over 67,000 specimens. Under the gaze of four jauntily-posed monkey skeletons peering down from a balcony, patrons explore the delicate bones of extinct Dodo birds, a jar of baby moles, a preserved Tasmanian tiger, the skeleton of a zebra-like quagga, and even bisected animal heads. The museum also incorporates exhibit iPads with quizzes and discussion questions relating to scientific ethics.

Browns, Cambridge

Fitzwilliam Museum

Make a beeline for the Italian paintings gallery to see the Annunciation by Domenico Veneziano, painted in the 1440's for the altarpiece of a church in Florence.

Royal Cambridge

De Vere Dunston Hall

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