Artistic inspiration

On the edge of London and at the heart of Epping Forest, Loughton has been an inspiration to numerous artists. Joanne Jarvis celebrates this home of culture

IF LOUGHTON for you is just Essex Wives and exclusive postcodes, think again. Scratch beneath the surface and you will be pleasantly surprised to find a rich cultural heritage that has attracted the great and the good to Loughton - and they have left their mark.Set in the heart of Epping Forest, just 12 miles from Central London, Loughton boasts more than 50 listed buildings and has been a magnet for poets, writers, artists and musicians for many years.In May this year the lives of many of these talented figures were celebrated during the Loughton Festival. The festival highlights the cultural history of the town and was held for the second year running in 2008. It saw almost 1,000 culture vultures descend on the town to enjoy a varied programme of events from talks and literary walks led by the West Essex Ramblers to music, children's events and art exhibitions.This year's event focused particularly on the work of sculptor Jacob Epstein, who lived in Loughton, and the life of poet Lady Mary Wroth who lived in Loughton Hall. There were also talks about author Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book) and the first performance of William Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, which is believed to have been staged at Copped Hall in 1594.One of the most significant events was held at Loughton Methodist Church, when friends and relatives of the poet George Granville Barker, who was born in Loughton in 1913, read excerpts from his work.Festival director, Sue Taylor, explains: 'It is extremely rare to hear Barker read aloud, so this was a once in a lifetime event for anyone who enjoys modern poetry, read only by those who knew him.'Poet Anthony Astbury, who organised the George Barker readings, added: 'There was a very good response and a lot of clapping. People were very enthusiastic and wanted to know more about where they live - it's natural curiosity after all.'It was Sue who came up with the idea for the Loughton Festival after visiting the Hay-on-Wye Festival in Wales, but even she was surprised to find so many familiar names with strong Loughton connections.'After delving into our local history about two years ago, everywhere I looked there were familiar names and I realised there was a lot of potential to celebrate our cultural roots,' says Sue.'Loughton is a unique town. It is part of Epping Forest and is, and has always been, a place where people come to relax, to escape from London. It certainly inspired, and continues to inspire, people to write and to paint. This year the number of visitors to the festival tripled. It was wonderful and we were very lucky that it was such a great success. 'Every event had something special about it and the highlights were different for everyone, but for me it was the children's events which made me realise just how incredibly talented people are here in Loughton. The standard was extremely high and I think it's important to get youngsters involved.'Preparations are already underway for next year's festival. 'We want it to be bigger and better next year and we're going to apply for some grants so we can stage productions. The more money we raise the better because then there will be something for everybody.'So next time you are in Loughton, why not explore some of the town's hidden gems such as George Barker's former home at 116 Forest Road or take a stroll through Epping Forest before putting pen to paper. It really is an inspiring place.