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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

17 March 2023

Malcolm Guite finds meaning in pamments — tiles made from sand and clay, unique to Norfolk

JUST in front of the little writing shed in our garden, we have laid a small terrace of old, reclaimed Norfolk pamments, in the hope that when and if the weather clears, I can sit outside the hut (called the Temple of Peace, more in hope than expectation), enjoy the sun, and write a poem or two. But I shall enjoy the pamments as well; for they are a uniquely Norfolk thing.

Pamments are buff, red, or reddish-brown terracotta tiles, made locally from sand and clay, just as it comes from the earth, with all its singular characteristics and “imperfections” — though these supposed “imperfections” include little fragments of glittering quartz, or even beautiful fossils. No two pamments are quite the same; for the mud from which they are made is not homogeneous. Set together in a floor or terrace, they seem, between them, to summon subtly different patterns on different days in different lights. Yet many might walk over them without ever noticing.

I first became aware of them because the church in Linton, Cambridgeshire, of which Maggie was Rector, had a floor patterned with red and buff pamments, and, when there was any need for repair or restoration, someone from the church would go up to north Norfolk and take a tour of reclamation yards to look out for some “good old pamments” to patch the floor in the nave.

There is, in fact, still one Norfolk firm that continues to make them by hand, using the same techniques and local materials as they have been made with for centuries. A mother-and-daughter team, down in Pulham Market, they take as their slogan, I am happy to say, “Good as old.” They make no bones about the homely and humble nature of their raw materials, and say on their website: “We are proud of our skill at transforming mud into tiles.”

Contemplating the pamment floor in St Mary’s, Linton, I sometimes wondered whether I should write a different version of George Herbert’s excellent poem “The Church Floor”. Herbert was, of course, writing about the rather more elaborate floors in “square and speckled stone” which he and Nicholas Ferrar were laying at their own expense at Leighton Bromswold and Little Gidding. There, the pattern was made by chequered black and white stone:

Mark you the floore? that square & speckled stone,
Which looks so firm and strong,
Is Patience:
And th’ other black and grave, where with each one
Is checker’d all along,

Were I to make a pamment poem, it would not be about our own patterning, or about the fine marble mentioned later in Herbert’s poem. Rather, it would be about the humble local clay — or let us call it mud — from which, in Genesis, even we are made.

It would be about how “singular characteristics” and even “imperfections” can be taken up by Christ the craftsman into a beautiful, variegated, purposeful pattern. It would have something to say about how those odd beauties in our neighbours, all of us tiles in the church, are sometimes overlooked and trodden under, though really they support us all. . .

Perhaps, if the weather improves and I can sit by my pamment terrace at the Temple of Peace, I’ll have a chance to write it.

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