Amanda Feilding: Has this ‘mad’ hedonistic hippie been proved right 50 years on?

In 1970, Amanda Feilding caused a furore after drilling a hole into her own skull (yes, really!). After decades of being dismissed as an oddball, her belief in the benefits of psychedelic drugs is suddenly being taken seriously.

I am not really in love with ketamine,’ states Amanda Feilding, the Countess of Wemyss and March. It’s a rather startling revelation for a 78-year-old woman of impeccable manners who looks as though her field of expertise may be some finer point of social etiquette. But Amanda has never been a traditional type.

Amanda Fielding
The portrait taken with her pigeon Birdie just after the procedure. Image: courtesy of Amanda Fielding

‘It’s just I don’t think the effects [of ketamine, a powerful anaesthetic with hallucinogenic qualities] are as long-lasting as with psychedelic-assisted therapy. LSD is my absolute favourite, of course, because of its purity. But the wonderful thing about ketamine is that it’s not illegal…’

While you’d be forgiven for thinking that the countess is just another 60s drug casualty, she is actually talking about the recent proliferation of private clinics – including one in Bristol – prescribing tiny amounts of ketamine to combat depression (recreational ketamine remains a class B drug). It’s a subject close to her heart because, over the past half century, Amanda has become one of the most respected forces in the field of drug research and reform.

Famously, Amanda’s life of research did begin in a rather unorthodox fashion with a youthful investigation into trepanation – the ancient practice of cutting a hole in the skull, supposedly to alleviate ailments or achieve a higher state of consciousness.

In 1970 she took a dentist’s drill to her own skull. A photograph (opposite) taken just after the procedure shows a serene Amanda, head wrapped in a bright scarf, ready for a night on the tiles. On her shoulder is Birdie, a pigeon with whom she claims to have shared a deep and lasting telepathic connection.

That gory episode caused a sensation and was, in no small part, responsible for the ‘eccentric aristocrat’ tag that promptly attached itself to her. Amanda subsequently ran for parliament twice, in 1979 and 1983, on a platform of ‘Trepanation for the National Health’. The venture – unsurprisingly – proved unsuccessful on both occasions. Many might judge that she was her own worst enemy if her goal was to be taken seriously by the scientific community.

Amanda Fielding
Amanda in 1970, preparing for her investigation into trepanation. Image: courtesy of Amanda Fielding

Amanda, however, has never been put off by rejection and stoically believes this may be her time. Psychedelics are now being lauded as everything from a minor mood booster to a cure for clinical depression. While middle-class mummies try microdosing psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms said to improve focus), scientists consider whether the compounds might help combat the looming, pandemic-exacerbated mental-health crisis. ‘I’ve never been busier in my life, setting up new collaborations that are all to do with the psychedelic space,’ she reports. ‘For example, I’ve co-founded a company with some people in the US to make a very democratised form of psilocybin which can be made incredibly cheaply and simply in a bioreactor vat, and I feel it is a way to guarantee access to any part of the world, however poor.’

She is telling me all this over Zoom from the handsomely beamed attic of Beckley Park, the baronial home in which she was born. A moated Tudor hunting lodge set amid 400 acres of private Oxfordshire estate, its imposing back door features as the entrance to the Riddle House in the Harry Potter films. Headquartered here, the Beckley Foundation campaigns to change global drugs policy. Its findings have shaped legislation and encouraged governments to reassess the potential of substances that have long been dismissed as, at best, a hippie affectation or, at worst, a path to moral ruin.

Amanda says her own mystical awakening began at Beckley Park in childhood, when she would imagine herself flying down the sweeping staircases. ‘I had no toys and no friends; one had to mooch around doing the best with one’s own brain,’ she recalls. Her father, Basil Feilding – the great grandson of the 7th Earl of Denbigh and the Marquess of Bath – did his farming by night so that he could paint all day, and would often pass out in a ditch because of his untreated diabetes. Her mother Margaret, Basil’s cousin, was a philanthropic Catholic who fervently believed in the idea of ‘every life having a mission’.

Left to her own devices, Amanda became fascinated by her Buddhist godfather Bertie Moore and at 16 she set out to join him in Sri Lanka with just £25 to her name. Hitchhiking as far as the Syrian border, she was taken in by a Bedouin tribe.

On her return to England, she began studying comparative religions and mysticism at Oxford University with leading philosopher Professor Robert Charles Zaehner. ‘They were awkward tutorials because I was very shy and he was very shy too,’ she recalls.

Later, as the 60s began to swing, Amanda moved to London, where she met the ‘genius’ Dutch chemist Bart Huges – a devotee of trepanation – and his acolyte Joe Mellen, father to Amanda’s two sons. Together, Amanda, Huges and Mellen experimented with a range of psychedelics including LSD. Amanda says she quickly began to regard LSD as a tool ‘by which we can manipulate our consciousness in a positive way. We can get more energy, more insight and more joy by careful, intelligent use.’

Amanda Fielding
After 50 years of championing the benefits of psychedelic drugs, Amanda has gone from being an ‘eccentric’ to finally being taken seriously by scientists. Image: Luke MacGregor/Bloomberg/Getty Images

She credits LSD with curing her own youthful addiction to cigarettes. Some 50 years later, her Beckley Foundation provided the impetus for a Johns Hopkins University pilot study which found that the use of psilocybin yielded an ‘80 per cent success rate [after six months]’ in attempts to stop smoking. What’s more, nearly 90 per cent of the participants rated their psilocybin experiences among the five most personally meaningful and spiritually significant of their lives. ‘There’s going to be a bigger study now,’ says Amanda.

Another recent trial, by the Centre for Psychedelic Research at Imperial College London, found that psilocybin may be at least as effective as a leading antidepressant in a therapeutic setting. Researchers said larger trials over a longer period were now needed.

Amanda has high hopes for psychedelics, specifically that they may hold the solution to the current crisis in mental health. Even before the outbreak of Covid-19, the World Health Organization estimated that one in four people were depressed, and mental illness was thought to be costing the UK economy £100 billion each year. The Centre for Mental Health, an independent charity, predicts that up to ten million people will require new or additional mental-health support as a direct result of the pandemic.

Amanda is blunt about the need to address this crisis – urgently. ‘We’re like lemmings heading towards the cliff,’ she says. ‘It’s looking really bad and we don’t have satisfactory solutions.’ Perception-altering psychedelics, she believes, ‘can change a person’s core settings and bring about a fundamental change in just a few sessions’. Over the years, she has been patiently gathering scientific evidence to support her convictions.

Sadly, all of this could have been established half a century ago, says Amanda, had psychedelics not been so enthusiastically condemned by the likes of the US President Richard Nixon. ‘They have the misfortune of falling into the overarching concept of drugs, which is a dirty word,’ she says. ‘Yet they are incredible medicines that humanity has used since the beginning of culture. You just have to look at the [prehistoric paintings inside the] Chauvet Cave, done on psychedelics, [to see that] they’re at the very heart of culture as we know it.’

The snag, of course, is that psychedelics have been outlawed for decades, making research both complicated and expensive. In the UK, LSD and magic mushrooms are class A drugs (alongside crack, cocaine and heroin), meaning possession can theoretically result in seven years in prison and a fine. There are only a small number of institutions licensed even to store LSD.

Amanda Fielding news clippings
Over the past year, stories of magic mushrooms helping to beat depression have started to hit the headlines

Initially, it was hard to raise the necessary funds for the Beckley Foundation, and Amanda’s husband, James Charteris – the Scottish peer whom she married in 1995 under the Bent Pyramid in Egypt – stepped in to help. (As a teenager, James served as Page of Honour to the Queen Mother.)

A crucial turning point for the Foundation was the development of brain imaging technology in the 1990s. ‘After eight years, we finally got the authorisation to do [imaging on the neural effects of] LSD,’ she says. ‘That study was recorded around the world and what it showed was the vast increase in connectivity that results when the blood supply is diverted from areas of the brain that create the ego mechanism or default mode network – in other words, when the censorship of the brain that comes with conditioning is turned off.’

Philanthropy, she notes, has its limits, particularly during an economic downturn, and recently Amanda has set up a company, Beckley Psytech, with her youngest son Cosmo Feilding Mellen, a documentary maker whose films have explored the origins of LSD and the downsides of prohibition. ‘I hope to create ethical businesses that prioritise health, happiness and the good of society over profit,’ says Amanda.

Last December, the company announced that it had raised £14 million from investors including the venture capital fund run by the founders of Innocent smoothies, to undertake research on 5-MeO-DMT, a short-acting psychedelic compound (naturally occurring in the secretions of the Sonoran Desert toad and several plant species) that switches on brain proteins normally activated by the wellbeing hormone serotonin. Used as a shamanic medicine by indigenous peoples of South America since the eighth century, it may be an effective modern treatment for depression, Amanda believes. ‘It has the interesting quality of creating a mystical experience which correlated with healing, and in our brain-imaging studies we have found that the people who have the best results are often those who’ve had a mystical experience – a feeling of unity with the whole,’ says Amanda.

‘Humanity has gone so wrong in some ways,’ she adds. ‘We are utterly brilliant but we are an unhappy, neurotic and, to a certain degree, psychotic species.’ She suspects social media is partly to blame. ‘The world’s young are now brought up on images of people who look beautiful and happy but are probably unhappy, poor darlings,’ she says. ‘They fuel resentment in the millions of people who follow them who feel they can’t be rich or successful enough, so you have a culture of envy and disappointment that’s creating neurosis and psychological disturbance.’

The pandemic – with its attendant loneliness, job insecurity and general sense of uncertainty – is likely to make matters even worse. Amanda appreciates how fortunate she is in this regard. After all, social distancing comes relatively easy when home is a remote manor at the end of a mile-long path.

Buoyed by the legitimisation of cannabis for medicinal use, Amanda hopes psychedelics are the next drug frontier. Her aim is to promote these compounds from the arena of illicit experimentation in student halls back into the science lab. Looking to the future, she hopes for the completion of this ‘paradigm shift’, where psychedelics will find application in the treatment of neurodegenerative illnesses, as well as illnesses associated with ageing. ‘Wherever one looks, one sees a win-win situation,’ she says.

With a psychedelic renaissance apparently just around the corner, Amanda could well become the movement’s patron saint, a prospect she finds faintly amusing. ‘It’s a surprise to find myself a respected figure, because I certainly haven’t been [in the past],’ she says. ‘Of course, I’ve been exactly the same figure all along, it’s just that society’s attitudes have changed.’

She recalls her mother’s desire to do good and wonders if her life’s work is born of a similar drive. ‘I feel a duty to do this work and I feel the world needs it.’

For further information about Amanda’s work, go to beckleyfoundation.org

Feature by Mark Smith.