"When I first took LSD I realised: this is the mystical experience. It’s the losing of the ego, it’s the floating
up the mountain.”
Amanda Feilding is flying the flag for the medical benefits of recreational drugs like cannabis and LSD with her pioneering work at The Beckley Foundation. Based out of the 75-year-old's tumbling country pile in Oxfordshire – which is ringed by a moat and has an island encircled with temple-like pillars – the foundation funds leading research into the medical benefits of psychedelics and mind-altering substances.
Amanda is also a countess whose lineage traces back to Charles II of England. In the 1960s, after travelling around Sri Lanka on her own, she discovered acid and hung out with the beat poets of the era, never without her beloved pet pigeon Birdie by her side. She met the Dutch scientist Bart Hughes, who introduced her to the shamanic practice of trepanation – essentially drilling a hole in one’s head, which she performed on herself in 1970.
Needless to say, a conversation with Amanda Feilding, with the wind blowing through the trees,
is quite a trip in itself.
This episode is produced by Lucy Dearlove.
TRANSCRIPT: Amanda Fielding
Amanda Feilding: It's just a very, very strange opening up, widening, lifting, changing the viewpoint. Much more flexible.
Kate Hutchinson: [Footsteps are heard. Describing the directions to Amanda's house] At the end of the wood, immediately after a skid warning road sign, there's a hidden turning to the left onto a track. Oh my god [laughing]
Kate intro: As you approach Amanda Feilding's tumbling country pile in Oxfordshire, it's perhaps unsurprising that she has dedicated her life to consciousness expanding exploration.
Kate: [Giving directions] Yeah! If you just carry on to where those cars are I think this is it. Wow. Woah!
Kate intro: A magical enclave of secret gardens, enchanted forests and even islands - it's a place where the imagination can run wild. Amanda's imagination has led her to the front line of psychedelic scientific research. At 75 years old, she is flying the flag for the medical benefits of recreational drugs like cannabis and LSD with her pioneering investigations at the Beckley Foundation.
Amanda: [Welcoming group in] Hello, lovely to see you.
Kate: Thank you so much for having us here!
Amanda: Not at all!
Kate: It's wonderful!
Amanda: It is pretty, isn't it?
Kate: I can't remember the last time I saw a moat, so you know, this is great!
Amanda: Yes it's nice, isn't it. But they're all very dried up, you'll see there, you'll come down on foot. And there's three moats, actually.
Kate: There's three? Oh good, I want the grand tour, Amanda! I want to see it all, this is so exciting.
Kate intro: Her life has always, you could say, been fairly far out. Amanda is a Countess whose lineage traces back to Charles II of England. In the 1960s, after travelling around Sri Lanka on her own, she discovered acid and hung out with the beat poets of the era, never without her beloved pet pigeon Birdie by her side. She met the Dutch scientist Bart Huges who introduced her to the ancient and rather terrifying sounding practice of trepanation, a shamanic ritual that is essentially drilling a whole in one's head, and which she eventually did on herself in 1970. Needless to say, a conversation with Amanda Feilding, with the wind blowing through the trees, is quite a trip...
Amanda: [A door is heard opening] That's Birdie. He was my total obsession, Birdie. Fate gave him to me. His mother died and I found him as this little fledgling. He had no feathers at all and I brought him up on a paintbrush and then he got fixated. And then he was with me, you know, in a cage, for 15 years or something. And he went wherever I went, and he adored me more than anything else in the world and I adored him, and I would've gone and probably lived in Holland and married someone I didn't marry because, you know, all sorts of things would've happened if I didn't have Birdie! I mean a bird who has become a lover of a person is in quite a dangerous state, in a sense. Yeah, he was consciousness. He was expansion, expressionary freedom. He was absolutely incredible, Birdie. He was a kind of honour to know.
Kate Hutchinson: Well first, like I said, I'd really love to know what your childhood was like growing up here?
Amanda: It was incredibly beautiful. The landscape, this place is so beautiful, I love it. But it was extremely, ah, what, today people would say uncomfortable and isolated. You know, there were no children around, there was the farm to run, there was no hot water, and no heating, except log fire. You know, so it was quite, relatively tough. But it was very beautiful, my parents were very lovely. [I was] particularly very very close to my father who's an eccentric and interesting individual. He said to me, I remember, early on, "Whatever the government tells you, do the opposite". He was very anti-establishment and here we were very much in our own world, you know the house is surrounded, you know, by three moats, and up a long track which nowadays has about seven gates on it. So it was a very isolated place, on the edge of a fen, there, which floods. But that had its own beauty, you know, it was outside the normal flux of life.
Kate: That could be a sort of description for your whole life, I think, in many ways, Amanda.
Amanda: Well maybe, maybe the pattern gets set when you're young and you flow on the same kind of paths but extending them and widening them and hopefully changing them.
Kate: [Walking around and discussing gardens] Oh, this is the island?
Kate: Well that makes total sense.
Amanda: This is where the swans have their nest.
Kate: This feels like a place you would do ancient rituals.
Amanda: Yes. The island is ancient.
Kate: But you wouldn't want to do acid on this island because you might get stuck.
Amanda: You wouldn't want to do what?
Kate: Acid on this island. Because you might get stuck.
Kate: How did you discover mysticism from such a young age and what kind of impression did that have on you?
Amanda: Right. Well that really came, my mother was Catholic so I grew up Catholic. My father was an atheist. So I had a bit of both. My father, who went to Oxford, was a very lazy student, had picked up a kind of amazingly brilliant man, who kind of helped him – did his work for him basically – and then came and lived here with my father's mother. And he became a very famous, actually, a Buddhist monk, and he translated this great, big, most important, one of the most important Buddhist books. And he was, he was an oddball, he had grown up on a rock. His father was an explorer, and he'd educated himself through the Britannia Encyclopaedia.
Kate: Was this Bertie, your godfather?
Amanda: Yes, yes.
Kate: Tell me about the experience of travelling to Sri Lanka on your own at 16 to find him.
Amanda: Well, Sri Lanka was later actually. I left school at 16 because the nuns wouldn't give me my prize for [unclear]. I wanted books on Buddhism and nuns don't really like books on Buddhism, and they thought I'd be much too attracted to it. So they gave me books on art. So then I decided, "Thanks very much, but I'll go and do my own education". So then I thought I'd go off and I got to all sorts of adventures in the Syrian desert and Palmyra and living with the Bedouin Chieftains and all sorts of adventures! And then finally I went onto Egypt and dervish dance, all sorts of things happened!
Kate: Wow. I mean, so you never found Bertie?
Amanda: I never got to Bertie, I never met Bertie. He's a phantom influence in my life.
Amanda: I remember as almost everyone in the 60s who smoked cannabis for the first time, I was listening to Ray Charles and just the kind of... ah, wonder of his voice on, on cannabis and suddenly I heard it in a whole new range of subtleties and um, depth. 1965 I think I was first introduced to LSD, so then suddenly when I took LSD I realised this is the area, this is the field of the experience that is the mystical experience. It's a losing of the ego, it's a floating up and out. It's a wonderful experience, you know. Stop reading, start experiencing.
Kate: Well clearly LSD made a profound impact but when did it go from being a pursuit, you know, something fun to do with friends in the park to becoming something that you thought, 'No, this is going to be my life's work'.
Amanda: No, absolutely, that's a very good question. Because when I took it this first period, I thought well this is amazing, but actually the kind of trip to the fun fair in the sense that you could have a wonderful experience like going on the wheel or whatever you call it at a fun fair, but it wasn't a way of life, I felt. It's quite chaotic, it makes the brain looser but to the point of chaos. Anyway, and then a friend came and said I must go to this party in London which was kind of the epitome, actually, of Swinging London, where Ravi Shankar was playing, and it was this very beautiful house over Embankment. At that, I met this person – it was his first night in London – called Bart Huges. He was a Dutch scientist. Then, to cut a long story short, Bart and I got together. I mean he was a scientist, he'd be a kind of prize student in medicine at Amsterdam University, and very against drugs, cannabis. But then anyway finally he realised, well, this is interesting. And so he actually called his daughter he had ‘marijuana’ -– Maria Juana.
Kate: He called his Maria Juana? That's incredible.
Amanda: And that didn't go down very well.
Amanda: These are new ones. Their parents were here, they were here for about 10 years, they're wild swans. And he, the father, came and actually he fell in love with me. I was very flattered! And he used to put his wings around, you know, like, and then some female landed on the thing and he was horrible to her! I tried to encourage him to be nicer. And then they got paired, and when he started, when she had eggs then he changed, and um, became a swan.
Kate: Can you come and sort out my love life please, Amanda?
Kate: I'd like to ask you a bit more specifics about the trepanation, if that's ok? Just what led you to becoming convinced that that was something that you needed to do?
Amanda: I never really thought I needed to do it, actually. You know, millions of people live perfectly well without doing it, so it wasn't a question of needing to do it. It was a question of being interested to see if it actually brings about the effect that Bart had said it did, could. He asked, there was a friend of his standing on his head at a party and Bart asked him why, and he said, "Oh, because I've run out of cannabis and I stand on my head to get more blood in my brain". And then Bart thought, "Oh, that's interesting". And so he started to develop a hypothesis about changing blood supply in the capillaries.
Kate: And what was this hypothesis, just to put it simply?
Amanda: Ah, to put it most simply: in the brain, there are two fluid volumes, blood and cerebrospinal fluid, which is basically water and it kind of drains the toxins and helps the circulation to drain away the toxins in the brain, and fills in the gaps. But the hypothesis is that the upright position has many, many advantages - see further, run more, all advantages, use in the hands, all the things you get from standing upright. But gravity is against you. Gravity means that there's a change in ratio between blood and cerebrospinal fluid and so when the skull closes in the upright position, the arches can't expand quite so far as they do in childhood. So they still expand, but it's a restricted expansion, and that loss of pulse pressure means that you've got less force, which changes the ratio between blood and cerebrospinal fluid. So when you're a child you have a little bit more energy, a little bit more heartbeat, force, pushing the circulation around, blood and cerebrospinal fluid. That's the hypothesis. And when your skull seals first the fontanelle and then the sutures come together, and then you become adult and then there's a slight sinking. Because I'm against self-trepanation it was my aim to find a doctor, I spent four years looking for a doctor, I met quite a few very nice doctors who were very interested and said they would do it for me, and then at the last moment, you know, quite understandably, they decided, well if God had meant us to have a whole in our head he would've provided us with one, which actually, he did do, close as ever. Or a more realistic one, something went wrong, one would lose one's doctors - it's not illegal, but it hasn't got an indication, it's not an accepted procedure.
Amanda: I'm a very, very cautious person and I see everyday injury magnified, so that's at the starting point. So I realised that if I was going to do it, when I finally decided after four years I’d found no doctor, Joe my partner said he'd done it so clumsily and so I said, "Oh, no thanks very much, I'll do it myself". So, then I decided that I have to learn how to do it, and I took that very seriously. There was a shop actually near Harley Street, and they were sweet and used to give me kind of, "Ah, this is this trepan and this stops automatically when you get through!", and I'd say, "Oh, what are cheaper versions?", and they'd show me the cheaper versions. They were very nice. And anyways, I learnt that, and I practised, I practised drilling, I practised all the possible things that can go wrong. And then I decided, well, as I'm an artist I'll make a film of it because it would be good material.
Kate: What was the reaction to the film?
Amanda: It was a very beautiful little film, actually. And I showed it in New York and across America, and people used to drop from their seats and faint. Like some article said, "Like ripe plums they drop to the floor". And they were, usually the ones who fainted were the ones who were most enthusiastic about it.
Kate: Was this something that you thought at the time or you think now could be given on the NHS?
Amanda: Absolutely. I mean, that's what I wanted to research and what I still want to research. And actually only this morning I was talking to a neuroscientist about doing some research for him. And I think it's very interesting because if it does improve cerebral circulation it's a very interesting process, because so many of the modern illnesses are based on degenerative conditions which, you know, are often caused or affect the cerebral circulation, and in Alzheimer's, dementia or plaque, you know. The slowing down of the circulation getting blocked, et cetera et cetera. Parkison's, they're all there, around that area. So if trepanation can slightly lift the cerebral circulation, maybe that's a measure for health, apart from the slight change in consciousness, possibly it gives, which I think it does. I think it gives you a level of consciousness more like what you were, say, pre 13.
Kate: So would the world be a better place if we were all doing a little bit of LSD?
Amanda: I'd never say all. I think it's a minority sport, you know, whoever, whatever that minority is. 25% at the most, maybe. But I think a society is richer, better, benefits, if it permits and respects that aspect of its population, because I think they can bring back very useful treasures from the desert or from the jungle or wherever they've been. They can bring back, I mean like, if you like, I don't know, what's his name? Steve Jobs said he'd never have done what he did if he hadn't taken LSD. Um, that one... Kary Mullis who discovered DNA and da da da, said he, you know, lots of people you meet have done very interesting things.
Kate: Did Steve Jobs tell you that?
Amanda: No. Um, um, Kary Mullis did, I gave a dinner for him at the Royal Society and, yeah. I remember him in the 70s standing on a table said, "I'd never do this!", on the front page of The Times, and I thought, "Gosh, there's a brave man. I like the look of him".
Amanda: As you know, we've been through the whole war on drugs which was a total disaster, quite obviously so. From the first moment one can see this is madness - it won't work, it will cause lots of suffering, a lot of taxpayers money, it will harm many people, you know.
Kate: And is that why you started the Beckley Foundation?
Amanda: I started, really I started the Beckley Foundation because I realised that this is incredibly important. It's a new potential phase for mankind when you have tools with which you can manipulate your level of consciousness, and furthermore, you can learn to work with it. In the 60s, the general kind of theme was to rather take you where the wind blew you. You know, you have a mystical experience, you have that, you have that. Whereas actually our kind of attitude was how do you use your expanded brain power, energy, to concentrate, to work, to try to make the world a better place, to understand better what is the human condition. Why are we like the way we are? How can we change it? How can we adapt it? How can one get this out of there, against the taboo? You know, those things. But I've always been a compulsive worker, you know, so when I was little I studied the mystics and then consciousness and the, blah blah blah. I like working! It's fun. So that's what I wanted to do when I started getting high, and it was so exciting. It was the most exciting period of my life, and I suddenly entered a much better understanding of how the ego controls who we are, and it's like a veil through which one sees reality, as so many great, you know like Plato and all these people have said it. But suddenly with the knowledge which we were exploring it was giving it a mechanistic physiological base, and that was very exciting. One felt one was really moving forward in the knowledge game. How could one evolve a better system of regulating the use of psychoactives? Because in my opinion, people want to change their consciousness - they're always going to want to change their consciousness, they have the right to change their consciousness – so long as they aren't harming other people.
Kate: Are psychoactive substances still taboo and if so why do you think that is?
Amanda: Um, I think for many reasons. I think one which is a very realistic reason is people are frightened of it. And, you know, there's a certain amount of reason why they're frightened of it. Because we don't have a culture like traditional cultures, where they have it in ceremonial form or whatever it is, and people all behave in a certain norm. We've lost that, and so our culture hasn't really got a way of controlling it. And then they don't like the loosening of the edges, which, I mean like alcohol loosens the edges, but somehow we've absorbed and worked out how to, we have to accept somewhere people altering their consciousness, so we've decided to accept, um, alcohol, nicotine and coffee and, and alcohol kills whatever it is, three, four million a year. Nicotine kills 6 I think million a year worldwide. You know, big killers, but they've got absorbed into the system, and these more esoteric substances, I mean I'm really thinking about the psychedelic substances, other ones. I think the whole prohibition approach was wrong and I think we should've had a health approach, you know, looking after people's health. Not making it a criminal issue but making it a health issue which it was before the 60s. And countries which have gone back to that like Portugal have a much better, um… you know, they have many less drug deaths, many less unwanted pregnancies, depressions. They're a healthier country than countries like England with a high prohibitionary approach.
Kate: Did you ever get tired of being a sort of lone wolf?
Amanda: Yeah, yeah. But as I say, I grew up here! I was a lone voice as a child. And you know, in a way I was less of a lone voice because I had one or two companions with whom I did it. Two's a crowd, you know, you're not alone. I always had a partner, so I was never alone.
Kate: And they were always trepanned?
Amanda: Trepanned, yep.
Kate: Is that a prerequisite?
Amanda: More or less! [Laughing]
Kate: Has there ever been a point in your life, in your career, in your work, where you've just thought, "You know what? I've got my house with the moat. I'm just gonna give this up"?
Amanda: Yeah! Absolutely, you know, it does. I have quite often thought that, I think, "Gosh, what am I doing?". I work 15 hours a day, I get no thanks. Um, you know, what am I doing, why am I doing it? I'm now 75, what am I doing? Why do I go on? Why don't I enjoy my nice garden? And then I realise, well, it's the best thing in. One wants to be creative, be useful, hopefully leave the world a little bit better place and, you know, doubt one's work, hopefully.
Kate: Absolutely. Amanda, you said you worked 15 hours a day – what do you do to relax?
Amanda: Um, have fun, you know. [laughing] Well I have great fun with my family, I have a lot of fun with my family. I have a husband, I have two children who I simply adore. My eldest son had twins, who I'm passionate about.
Kate: What did your sons make of your exploits when you were growing up?
Amanda: Well, they've grown up with it. My eldest son decided his rebellion was to study classics and become a politician, you know. But they're lovely, my sons, I'm passionately fond of them, we get on very well. And my younger son has now joined me in what I'm doing, so that's fun.
Kate: That's fantastic! Have you ever tripped together?
Amanda: Yeah. We went to Burning Man together, we've done that several times, yeah.
Kate: What was that experience like?
Amanda: It was lovely! A lot of fun, a lot of fun. But I go there and talk about the Beckley Foundation and that sort of thing, and it's very good for it. I much prefer not talking about the Beckley Foundation, just more fun hanging around. As a child dreaming here what I might do, or what happens, you know I had fantasies kind of thing. One of my fantasies was being a heroine in the desert, and watering the desert, that was very much kind of – I saw myself as someone who goes around watering the desert. And funnily enough I went to the desert and I had all sorts of adventures in the desert so I fulfilled that kind of idea of what I might do. And then I realised when I learnt about consciousness and how the psychedelics maybe increased the power of the brain, changed the power of the brain, lifting its, lifting, and that's what we're just beginning to discover, it lifts the vibration to a higher vibration, a kind of gamma instead of a heavier, more controlled, anxious vibration.
Kate: Do you feel like your goal may be achieved? That you'll see your goal be achieved?
Amanda: It's possible. I mean it's also possible one's health cracks up before one sees one's goal. I think, oh, you know, who knows how, I think things can happen amazingly quickly with modern technology.
Kate: You must've come up against a lot of people?
Amanda: Yeah, everyone thought I was mad.
Kate: How did you deal with that?
Amanda: Well funnily enough having grown up here was a very good – we were always considered slightly mad. [Laughing] Do you know what I mean? I'm so used to it, it didn't really matter. You know, I'm still probably considered mad - less so now, because people have slightly more realised. I mean people come up to me and say, "Oh we always thought you were completely mad, but now I realise you were right all along", that's what some people say, and that's nice. And actually you know to be honest I only do it because I think the argument is right, otherwise I wouldn't bother. It's a lot of effort doing what I do. It's taken my life, basically, up, and I only do it because I think it's good for humanity to have this explored, opened up, and if it's so, made common knowledge.
Lucy Dearlove: This episode of The Last Bohemians was produced by me, Lucy Dearlove. To listen to the rest of the series subscribe on Apple Podcasts and see the photographic portrait series online at thelastbohemians.co.uk.