No Entry - Guided Buses only, the roadsign said. And with that my shiny single decker turned left onto the course of the Cambridge & St Ives railway. This minor branch line survived in passenger service until 1970, closed to freight in the 1990s and then entered a period of decay. No demand, no future. But there's plenty of demand now, with the thriving Cambridge Science Park at one end and the dormitory suburb of St Ives at the other. Except on Sundays, obviously. The electronic "next bus" indicator lit up with a sorry list of the day's entire service... "St Ives 11:08, St Ives 13:08, St Ives 16:08". That was going to prove problematic for one couple who arrived at the bus stop just as the bus was pulling up. On the Guided Busway section, all tickets must be bought from a machine before boarding. Press, select operator, press, select destination, press, select ticket type, insert coins... and we were off, leaving them both behind, out of time.
We weren't off very far. The traffic lights along the busway are supposed to switch to green whenever a bus approaches, but the next lights didn't. They stayed red as not-much-traffic crossed the junction ahead, and stayed red, and stayed red. A first day gremlin, to be sure, but we'd still be waiting at that adverse signal if our driver hadn't finally edged out across the road and then sped on. Wheeee! Having a trackway of one's very own allows impressive speeds to be attained, certainly higher than buses usually manage on normal streets. [video]
Suddenly we were out among freshly-harvested fields, heading towards a windmill and a succession of dormitory villages. The people of Histon and Impington were out celebrating, or at least a few of them were, with bunting and a little stall on one corner. There were plenty of passengers waiting on the edge of Oakington, but mostly on the opposite track attempting to head into Cambridge. They'd be lucky. There were even more passengers at Longstanton, where there's a not-quite-finished-yet park and ride, and they'd already filled most of the remaining available seats. I got a bit confused which village was which, because there's no on-board announcement service nor are there any large nameplates at bus stops. Local residents won't suffer such orientation problems, however. Live anywhere out here and the Busway is a public transport godsend... but only so long as you want to travel somewhere the bus actually serves. So it won't be like this every Sunday - most of the locals will go back to their cars after their first day sample journey.
I hopped off at Swavesey, because Swavesey has something in common with Greenwich, Chingford and Peacehaven. It lies precisely on the zero meridian, and I'd heard there was a special monument signifying this geographic location somewhere in the village. And there is, very close to the busway, but it's not a very inspiring marker. A single concrete post, topped by a cheaply-chiselled plaque, commemorating the Swavesey Millennial Celebrations. ITV filmed here as 1999 ticked over into 2000, although goodness knows what they found to fill their airtime. Me, I loved the village store and thatched Post Office down the road, still advertising out front as CONFECTIONER, TOBACCONIST, STATIONER, NEWSAGENT, and selling Minerals, Pipes and Pouches, Library, Views and Fancy Goods.
A few teething problems were evident at Swavesey's newest bus stop. A local family were trying to work out what ticket to buy, for which they needed to know which bus operator was coming next. The timetable said a 'B' was due, the electronic indicator suggested it was 25 minutes away, but whether they needed a Stagecoach or Go Whippet ticket defeated them. The bus turned out to be 1 minute away, by which time no tickets had been purchased, but this driver relented and let them pay on board instead. And Swavesey's traffic lights were playing up too. They kept switching from red to green even when there was no bus in sight, repeatedly halting traffic on the local road to let absolutely nothing pass. Teething problems, it'll pass.
Last stretch of busway ahead - a glorious fenland section with lakes and a nature reserve off to one side. Everybody was waving to our double decker as it swept through. A crowd of ramblers waved, a bloke in a recumbent waved, everyone at the Fen Drayton request stop waved. A bus is a genuine novelty in these parts, out in the middle of what's still fields, even if nobody actually lives here. The cycleway isn't quite ready out here, this is the part that's liable to flooding and "water egress", so there'll be no bikes just yet joining the buses on the new bridge over the Great Ouse.
And then, almost straight away, St Ives. This is where the railway station stood, so this is where they've built a massive Park and Ride to encourage local residents onto the bus. Seems to have worked. Almost everybody aboard my bus alighted here, and those that didn't only hung on a few hundred yards more to the town's bus station, because that's the end of the good bit. Twelve miles in 20 minutes, including stops, that's damned good for a bus. But the next section's damned average. The 'express' bus reverts to 'bog standard', meandering round edge-of-town housing estates in both St Ives and Huntingdon. This is no doubt great for picking up commuters from somewhere near home, but six miles in 30 minutes is never going to attract longer-distance travellers.
Indeed, much is being made of the wholly unimproved journey times that the Busway has brought here. Central Huntingdon to central Cambridge takes roughly as long on the speedy new bus as it did on the old, but now the bit in the middle is faster. Will some Cambridgeshire residents be big winners? Yes. Was the railway hugely faster? Absolutely. Should the council have spent quite so much time and money on a substandard solution to congestion woe? Let's wait and see.
And finally, having reached Huntingdon, I had to have a good look round this old county town too. It didn't take long, because the High Street's mostly shops, but there are some splendid Georgian buildings and a fine Norman church. The town's inordinately proud of its association with Oliver Cromwell (because without him their most famous resident is probably John Major). His tiny old school has become the Cromwell Museum, a fascinating (but very old-school) collection of Puritan memorabilia (amazing hat, sir). The town's stone bridge is even older, linking two separate medieval settlements on opposite banks of the River Great Ouse. "Incorporated 1212" boasts a sign on the Godmanchester side. "Incorporated 1205" retort the good folk of Huntingdon, in a historical ner-ner-ner-ner-ner manner. And then I took the train back to London, because it was quicker than the bus back to Cambridge.