Amanda Feilding – the first lady of LSD
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Wellbeing and fitness news every morning.
A low mist is hovering above the fens on either side of the mile-long track to Beckley Park. This patchwork of marshland is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll’s mind-bending chessboard in Alice Through the Looking Glass, and on this eerie morning such strangeness tilts the perspective. The feeling is heightened by the knowledge that at the end of the path is a house not only steeped in intrigue dating back to King Alfred, but one whose current châtelaine, Amanda Feilding, has for almost 60 years been a passionate agitator in “The Psychedelic Renaissance”.
The track winds to a wide-fronted and narrow-waisted Tudor house built in dark-red diaper brick. Cosseting it are three greeny-black moats, whose patterns play games with logic. One streak of water comes from nowhere to run along the face of the house, while another snakes behind then disappears, engulfed by a new vision: a maze of towering topiary that points and undulates, hides and exposes. To the south of the main building is a moss-covered caravan engraved with hearts and birds; beside it, a converted cowshed with an arched and iron-studded wooden door. Here, sheltering from the wind, is the beating heart of the Beckley Foundation.
Feilding created this non-profit organisation in an outbuilding of her family home in 1998 following a frustrating 30-year one-woman crusade. Her vision: to work with leading scientists from around the world to establish the true effects of psychedelics. The foundation’s aim is to reform global drug policy based on scientific evidence and safely reintegrate psychedelics into society. In 2016, its Beckley/Imperial College London study was the first of its kind to demonstrate that psychotherapy in conjunction with psilocybin (the psychoactive ingredient in magic mushrooms) could be effective for treatment-resistant depression.
Feilding, a gently statuesque figure who marries scientific intensity with bohemian romance, remains restless for continued progress, and claims to dedicate 15-hour days to her cause. It’s easy to believe. As she shows me around her home, she weaves vivid tales of childhood, romance, trauma, mysticism and family, but always pointedly brings it back to “the science”. Feilding does not have, as she puts it, “letters after her name”. She describes herself as “self-educated”, having dropped out of both school, then Oxford University, and began to take and study psychedelics in the mid-’60s under the guidance of her then-lover, trepanation advocate Bart Huges. Mysticism and consciousness are her passions, but “science is the religion of the modern age; it killed off spirituality”, she believes. In order to explore consciousness through the use of psychedelics, she “realised the only way... was to use science as a tool to prove what one was saying was true, not part of a kind of druggy fantasy”.
Feilding was born at Beckley in 1943, the fourth child to parents she describes as “absolutely charming” but also “anarchist in intellectual temperament”. She remembers her artist/farmer father saying, “Whatever the authorities or the government tells you to do – do the opposite.” It was the middle of the war, and the “freezing” house was packed with family escaping from London, as well as refugees. “We ran wild,” she says. Upstairs, a bedroom now drenched in golden tones and centred around a four-poster bed upcycled by Feilding was the nursery. A glass-fronted cupboard in the corner is filled with the dead-eyed dolls she once played with.
The house is a jigsaw of rooms that interlock rather than running off a central space. It’s rich in historical grandeur but also, with its modestly sized rooms dominated by huge stone fireplaces, exudes cosiness. Feilding’s grandparents bought the house in 1919, custodians in the footsteps not only of King Alfred, but also Henry III (who gave the then-incarnation of the house to his brother, the scheming Earl of Cornwall); Edward II (who gave it to his rumoured lover, Piers Gaveston); the Black Prince (father of Richard II); and Lord Williams of Thame, who built the current house on the medieval site. “The mists come in and it’s a magical place,” says Feilding. “Somehow there’s a strange magic, maybe partly because of the history that bubbled here.
“It’s a good setting for ideas,” she continues. “It’s got a feeling of being an island outside culture in which you are free to explore.” Her grandmother, she tells me, welcomed a merry-go-round of creatives including Aldous Huxley, who set his novel Crome Yellow at Beckley after visiting for tea in 1921. Presciently, his book The Doors of Perception explores the effects of mescaline on consciousness.
“It was quite a strange mix of peasant-like living – where we had to go out and do the cows and pigs and chickens – and exclusive intellectual living,” says Feilding of growing up. There was “a deep feeling that one didn’t need to follow society because one was slightly above it”. Feilding’s mother was Catholic, her father an atheist and her godfather a Buddhist monk who translated a seminal book on Buddhism, The Path of Purification. Bedtime reading was Seven Pillars of Wisdom and The Third Eye. As a result, she says, “From a very early age, I have been passionate about changing states of mystical experience… and different states of consciousness.” She describes having as a child an imaginary “pet god” called Zio, who she tried to make laugh. Today, the wood-panelled snug is used for yoga and meditation, and every room is piled with books on religion, consciousness and the mystical: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, Ceremonial Chemistry and The Way of the Psychonaut are just three in the downstairs loo.
For Feilding, a 22-year-old in 1965, LSD, then legal, was a natural exploration of all that she was interested in. “I was amazed how it brought the mystical experience [of childhood] back,” she says. But after someone spiked her with what she describes as “thousands of doses of LSD”, she suffered a “trauma” and retreated to Beckley to recover. She acknowledges that “most people would never touch it again”. But she began to study LSD under the tutelage of Huges. “Being so interested in mysticism and consciousness,” she says, combined with “the good fortune of meeting Bart, who had this explanation at this key moment when I was so traumatised, meant I could take the compound and work with it with discipline”. In 1966 LSD was banned in the UK and US; psilocybin in 1971. Feilding’s fight against this began in earnest.
The crusade recentred itself at Beckley Park, following the death of Feilding’s parents, when she and her then-partner Joe Mellen bought the property from her siblings. The studies that had begun all that time ago took on new life shortly after as the Beckley Foundation.
The house has played no small role in the foundation’s evolution – not only has it been Feilding’s home and office, but it has also been a meeting place for the global psychedelic community, from politicians to physicists. In 2011, the Beckley Foundation published a public letter calling for a new approach to the global war on drugs. Its 32 signatories included nine presidents and former presidents, including Jimmy Carter; Nobel Prize-winning chemists and physicists, including Sir Anthony Leggett; creatives, including the musician Sting and the writer Mario Vargas llosa; and archbishop Desmond Tutu.
“Beckley Park helped to attract researchers and funders because of its ambience and sense of history – as well as Amanda’s hospitality,” says Professor David Nutt, the neuropsychopharmacologist who worked with Feilding on the Beckley-Imperial psychedelic research programme. “Though it was very cold in winter!” he adds. He fondly recalls fundraising dinners for the LSD imaging study that, in 2016, published results showing increased visual processing in the brain (beyond the visual cortex) after taking LSD – or the ability to “see” with eyes shut.
“As part of my work, I entertain people two or three times a week,” says Feilding over lunch in the slim puzzle piece of a dining room, its wooden table and tapestry-covered chairs running alongside a vast fireplace and 17th-century telescope. “Lots of seminal meetings have happened here.” Most recently there have been American philanthropists; Feilding is keen for them to support the US-based non-profit arm.
She tells me that the latest fundraising push is to support her new “double-headed” research programme, created in collaboration with scientists from King’s College London, Cornell and the University of Basel, to name but three. This “deep exploration of LSD” will look into, on the one hand, the mystical and spiritual effects of full dosage, and on the other, therapeutic applications for microdosing in ageing communities – including those with Alzheimer’s – and a new concept for care homes. “This project is the culmination of what I’ve been wanting to do,” she says.
The name she has chosen for the research programme echoes the symbol of the foundation: the double-headed eagle – taken from one of her family crests, framed pictures of which hang in the tiny loo. “I was trying to think: how do I make it look establishment, like a college?” she says. “I’ll use the family crest and change it a bit.” It is pure aristocratic licence. (Nearby, in a side passage, a 3m-wide family tree filled with tiny ink handwriting delves into Feilding’s heritage. Dating back to Edward I, it embraces such highlights as “Moll Davis, actress, ‘the most impertinent slut in the world’”.)
“My hope is that the concept of altered states of consciousness is accepted by society and that it can be beneficial for those who want it,” she says of her holy grail. Her hypothesis is that psychedelics “increase the energy to the brain, which must logically be a good thing. It increases neuroplasticity. It increases neurogenesis – and that is the basis of learning and adapting. And that’s what humanity must have to survive… There’s a growing epidemic of mental illness – we’re a very troubled animal – and we need to adapt to a very different world. And consciousness is key. What is more key, in a sense?”
Psychedelics are not the extent of Feilding’s experiments with consciousness. In the bigger of two living rooms – hung with glorious yellow curtains, and grand images of Susanna and the Elders and The Death of Seneca – a skull peeks out from behind some flowers. Six large coin-sized holes are bored into it. A gift from her husband James Wemyss (the 12th Earl of Wemyss and 9th Earl of March, and the reason Feilding is a countess), it dates from “thousands of years ago” and is a symbol of their shared fascination with trepanation.
Dating from the Stone Age, the practice of drilling a hole in the skull is believed by advocates to increase blood flow to the brain, increasing energy, creativity and higher states of consciousness. Aged 27, Feilding practised the act on herself with a dentist’s drill, while partner Joe Mellen filmed it as a documentary “artwork” called Heartbeat in the Brain. “All you’re doing is removing a piece of bone so that the membranes surrounding the brain can expand as much on the heartbeat. So you are restoring the full systolic pressure and the benefit of that is a little bit more blood in the capillaries of the cranial cavity... and the benefit of that is increased energy.” Supposedly, straight after, she wrapped her head in a bandage and a turban and headed out to a party. So impressed was she with the effects that she not only convinced James Wemyss to be trepanned several decades later, but also twice stood for Parliament, in 1979 and 1983, campaigning for “trepanation for the National Health”.
Feilding describes standing for Parliament as a “conceptual artwork”, a term she also levels at the Beckley Foundation. “I think it’s a work of art, and I think it’s a rather successful work of art,” she says. “My aim was to no longer be Amanda Feilding, a female with no letters to my name, [and to] become a foundation and get the best scientists in the world, put them on my board. That’s why it’s a conceptual artwork.” Board members have included the late neurobiologist Sir Colin Blakemore, and collaborators the former government adviser Professor Nutt. She is proud of her creation: “I did it to change the world. Which it has helped to do.”
This year, the foundation marks its 25th anniversary and Feilding has turned 80. Birthday toasts included those from biologist and author Merlin Sheldrake, who called her “a passionate and fearless advocate for psychedelic research [whose] efforts have helped transform the study of these remarkable compounds”, and Dr David Luke, associate professor of psychology at the University of Greenwich, who said: “I can think of no one in the UK who has worked harder and more consistently than her, over six decades, to bring psychedelics back into the light of consciousness in both science and drug policy.” Coincidentally – or perhaps not at all – 80 years of LSD is also being celebrated. Although Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann synthesised the compound derived from the ergot fungus in 1938, he only appreciated its properties five years later when he ingested 250mcg and had an interesting cycle ride home – hence the name given to 19 April by the psychedelic community: Bicycle Day.
Feilding feels her role in “The Psychedelic Renaissance” has been pivotal: “In a sense I did take on the world’s law,” she says. “And I think we’ll win. I’ve always felt it was the winning side.” Over the decades, she has been called everything from “the crackpot countess” and a “hedonistic hippie” to “the Queen of Consciousness”. Now, more than $3bn has been raised by psychedelics prospectors, many of them from Silicon Valley, to explore their benefits in conditions from depression and anorexia to PTSD.
She is “delighted” also that her two sons (with Mellen) have “picked up the baton”. Each has taken Beckley in a new, for profit, direction: Rock Feilding-Mellen, 44, is developing Beckley Retreats, whose first “psychedelic healing retreats” launched this year in Jamaica and the Netherlands, and whose round of seed funding in October 2022 saw a $1.5mn investment. Younger son Cosmo is the CEO of Beckley Psytech, a biotechnology company exploring the potential of synthetic psychedelics to be licensed for neuropsychiatric treatments; it announced in February that it had received Investigational New Drug (IND) approval from the FDA for a global study.
Feilding, however, maintains a certain distance: “I’m not against profit. But my aim is to do good for the world. And I don’t want that contaminated by, you know, profit.” She plans to continue focusing on the foundation’s specific quest from her HQ at Beckley Park. “It is part of my soul. I couldn’t imagine living without Beckley. I have always loved it as a being. I think it is rather primal.”
Beatrice Hodgkin will chair a session on psychedelics at the FTWeekend Festival at the Kennedy Center, Washington DC, on 20 May. For in-person and online tickets, visit ftweekendfestival.com
This article has been amended to correct the title of Amanda Feilding’s husband