Deep in the Oxfordshire countryside sits Beckley Park, a Tudor stately home encircled by not one, but three moats. Standing on a stone in the middle of one of these is Amanda Feilding, the 73-year-old Countess of Wemyss and March, who is the head of both the house and the foundation run out of its cowshed. We are discussing the benefits of LSD.
“I found it was an amazing tool with which one could enhance one’s life,” she says, recalling her discovery of the drug in the 1960s, when it was legal. “What people need to realise is that LSD has got such a bad reputation and actually it doesn’t deserve it. It’s non-toxic and incredibly pure.”
Since her first forays into psychedelics, Feilding has spent her life campaigning for a better understanding of substances and practices that can, in her words, “expand consciousness”. Since 1998 she has run the Beckley Foundation, one of the biggest and most progressive charitable organisations campaigning for drug reform around the world, from the aforementioned cowshed (“It used to be up to here in cow dung!”).
This year, the foundation has worked with Imperial College London on two groundbreaking studies into the effects on the body of LSD and psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms). The findings on both have made waves in scientific and medical circles.
“It’s amazing what you can learn by studying this,” Feilding tells me with a smile, “because it’s like an orchard rich with fruit that no one’s been gathering, so the fruit is just there, waiting to be picked.”
The two studies were unprecedented, partly because of the obstacles to obtaining approval for experiments involving illegal drugs. The UK government classifies both LSD and psilocybin as having “no recognised medicinal or legitimate uses beyond potential research use” – and even for research, you need a special, £5,000 licence from the Home Office to use them at all.
The studies suggest that psilocybin could alleviate treatment-resistant depression and that LSD could help loosen the repetitive, sometimes depressive thought patterns that contribute to mental illness. Feilding compares the effects of psychedelics to spoken therapy, as opposed to existing antidepressants. “What is so good about this psychedelic-assisted therapy,” she says, “is that it seems to reach a much deeper level of the self in a relatively quick period of time.”
Feilding first gained notoriety as a pro-trepanation activist and artist, who performed the operation (in which a hole is drilled in the skull) on herself and filmed it in 1970. She was 27 at the time and an article about the film in New York magazine described her as a “young Englishwoman of fetching looks and formidable family”, who “cut off her fringe and applied the drill”.
By then, she had already studied art and eastern religions after leaving formal education at the age of 16. She turns to the window and gestures at Beckley’s lush grounds. “I grew up here, which is a very isolated environment – nothing much to do except mooch around and think about the self,” she tells me. “So I had a passionate interest in the mystics from a very early age.”
She describes herself as “self-educated, with no letters after my name”. However, her family, as New York noted, is indeed formidable. Her father, Basil Feilding, and her mother, Margaret Feilding, were cousins who were descended from the Habsburgs, and from two illegitimate children of Charles II.
Her focus has now strayed from trepanation, though she would one day like to carry out research on it. I ask what effects it had on her and she responds with a scientist’s scepticism. “It’s very difficult to be sure. I think I observed a ‘relaxing’. At the time, I put it as being like the tide coming in, a lifting.”
Amanda’s ex-partner Joseph Mellen, with whom she has two children, and her current husband, James Charteris, the 13th Earl of Wemyss, have also undergone the operation. “In both, I’ve noticed a change, though very subtle. My husband had chronic headaches from childhood upwards and would lose a day a week to it. After trepanation, he’s never had a headache.”
Inside the house, she shows me a human skull on her sideboard: a gift from a friend, she says. In it are six marble-sized holes. “He was an Irish nobleman thousands of years ago,” she tells me with hushed excitement. “He was certainly trepanned, but one really doesn’t know why he did it so many times!”
Around us are more signs of a lifelong obsession with consciousness: a human head made of glass and portrait of the young Amanda with the trepanning hole still visible on her forehead.
Though she is strident in her criticism of the war on drugs – she has advised leaders around the world on decriminalisation and legalisation – she believes that it is wrong-headed, even dangerous, to know so little about these substances.
“I am very, very happy to be proved wrong,” she says. “I’m happy whatever way it goes. What I want to do is know.”