One foot in the past

Certain places just resonate with history, discovers Nicolette Jones as she traces the steps of Samu

We all know what it is to make a physical journey that is also, in our heads, a journey back in time. Every visit home can be like that. The Queen has just had a second honeymoon in Malta, presumably to return, in her royal head, to 60 years ago. It is also why we visit places of historic interest: to go back in our minds beyond our own pasts. So we walk on Hadrian's Wall imagining ourselves Roman centurions on the alert for glimpses of woad. We stand in the Tower of London at the block where Anne Boleyn was beheaded, and feel the frisson of thinking about being at her execution, or more likely about being her at her execution. And we make pilgrimages to the places associated with our heroes: to Stratford, to Blenheim, to Graceland.

The past seems to saturate certain locations, sometimes whole cities, to such an extent that it is hard to see them now except through a filter of memories and associations. Paris is one of these places, coloured by song, Oxford another, mostly influenced by books (Jude the Obscure, Zuleika Dobson, Brideshead Revisited), New York a third, like being in the movies. As we walk through them we navigate a mental landscape made partly out of fictions and partly out of hindsight.

Some places can't escape a particular moment, especially if it is tragic: Tiananmen Square, Lock erbie, Dunblane, Ground Zero. Life may go on there, with its ordinary joys, but every stranger who visits mourns. The past in such places has power over huge numbers of people.

One effect of historical research, I have discovered, is to turn many more places into timeslips. All sorts of locations become windows on to incidents in the past, some of which very few people ever think about. You don't have to go far to travel in time. I wrote a book about a Victorian who travelled a great deal - not only through Britain, but through continental Europe, Africa, Canada, the United States and Asia. His wife died in Australia. And I may now spend a lifetime in his shoes. Plimsoll's shoes, that is.

Both to research the book and to publicise it, I visited places I knew he had been to. There were plenty, because, to raise consciousness about the plight of sailors obliged to sail in overloaded and unseaworthy ships, Samuel Plimsoll travelled the country for years to address meetings in town halls and squares and theatres. There is hardly a British town that did not hold a Plimsoll rally. Fortunately he was very fond of trains, and would walk the platforms of Victoria Station for recreation rather as other people might go for walks in the park. He would have been happy on an author tour.

In Falmouth, I walked along Green Bay Terrace, where I knew he had visited his sister, trying to identify the house although names had changed, and loitering with retrospective intent in front of a likely contender to gaze from its front gate out over the water, as Plimsoll must have done. (Sea views were a theme. Even his grave in Folkestone had a sea view.)

I knew he had addressed a meeting in the Banqueting Room of Bath Guildhall in 1875. I found the elegant Georgian chamber full of rows of seats for the literary festival. I sneaked into the hall between events and on to the stage, where I stood in the centre, assuming it was the spot from which Plimsoll had addressed his audience. I took a picture. To anyone else, this is a photograph of an empty room. To me, it is an image of a sight through Plimsoll's eyes.

In Bristol, I found the former Grand Hotel; he addressed the crowd here from a balcony since vanished. His coach, which he occupied with his wife and the local MP, was carried by ten sailors from Bristol Temple Meads Station in a parade eighteen hundred-strong that included bands and a float of a rotten "coffin ship". I tried in vain to find the corner of the White Lion Hotel that was until a few decades ago called the Plimsoll Bar; even the staff did not remember. I watched the traffic. On that day in 1873 all other coaches were stopped by the throng. I envisaged the chap who had conducted the crowds and pointed at Plimsoll with an umbrella. I contemplated the uphill gradient and thought of the sailors.

Even close to home, familiar streets now conjure more distant images. Behind the white 1930s facade of the Queen's Hotel on City Square next to the station in Leeds, which I see whenever I go home to my parents (on a different journey back in time), I see the black Gothic of the original building where Plimsoll launched the book that made him famous - Our Seamen: an Appeal. I know that he and I have trod the same pavement. When I walk along the Strand in London, I see Plimsoll's wife, Eliza, marching along it with the Ladies' Committee of the Plimsoll and Seamen's Defence Fund, accompanied by banners and bands, and I relish the sight. And when I celebrated publication of my paperback with lunch at Plimsoll's favourite restaurant, Simpson's-in-the-Strand, I saw him conspiring with his revolutionary friend Havelock Wilson in an adjacent booth. In Islington, there is also a Moroccan restaurant, Maghreb, that used to be Plimsoll's brother's coal office. No amount of camaraderie and couscous can erase a presence.

Behind King's Cross is a viaduct built by Plimsoll that is under threat from developers. I may have to lie down on it when the bulldozers come, wearing my plimsolls printed with Samuel Plimsoll's signature - which, to my sartorially sensitive daughters' dismay, I had made to compound the tribute. Plimsolls were named after him by a sales rep in Liverpool in 1876, because, being rubber below and canvas above, they could be immersed in water safely only up to a certain point, like a merchant ship. The shoes may be his lasting monument, but sites that survive from history can take you further.

Nicolette Jones's "The Plimsoll Sensation" is published by Abacus (£9.99, paperback)

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic