I Got a Tour of the First Psychedelic Therapy Clinic in Britain

The CIPPres Clinic in London is all Scandi chic, leafy houseplants and psilocybin trials.
The dosing room of the CIPpres Clinic
The dosing room. Photo: courtesy of the CIPpres Clinic

If you’re thinking of places to take magic mushrooms, a hospital might be bottom of your list. Festivals, yes. In a forest, yes. Your own home with a Family Guy marathon, yes. Even in someone else’s home: at a party, past midnight, drinks flowing – sure. 

But inside the clinical confines of a hospital ward? Tripping surrounded by white walls and surgical equipment sound like a guide book for DIY trauma. And when you add having a mental health condition like OCD into the mix, dropping shrooms in hospital at all doesn’t exactly seem like a smart idea.


But this is exactly what’s going on at St Charles Hospital in North Kensington. At the clinic, which was launched in 2021 as a collaboration between the NHS and Imperial College London, people are taking shrooms in a bid to treat mental disorders such as OCD.

I never expected to hear the words “NHS” and “psychedelics” in the same sentence, so my curiosity is certainly piqued. I travel to the clinic to get a sense of what it would be like to trip there. It’s tucked away in an elusive corner of the hospital. Inevitably I get lost en route, but a helpful nurse directs me to the correct building, where I mount the stairs. I’m half expecting to stumble upon some trippy kaleidoscopic Narnia, but when I open the door, there are no mandala tapestries or neon lights. 

Instead, the space is white and clear, aside from a curious gold spiral painting that looms from the wall like a beautiful Roman shield. It’s hospital ward meets art gallery meets modern Scandi home, and it’s where I meet Joseph Peill, the clinic’s operations manager and trial coordinator. Peill, who has a preternaturally calm demeanour, invites me to explore the several rooms that make up the clinic.

The entrance of the CIPPres clinic showing a gold painting.

The entrance of the CIPPres clinic.

Scattered around the clinic are leafy plants, and there’s a riff on the entrance’s golden art piece in each room. The artwork was created by London-based artist Jack Joiner. “The idea there are potential tools that could help other people’s lives that they don’t have access to is something I wanted to be able to do my bit for,” says Joiner, who has suffered from depression himself. 


He was also drawn to the idea of making something that could influence patients’ experiences for the better. “When you take everything out of the clinic, it’s just a white NHS planning space,” he adds. “That was the challenge – to try and make it a place that was comfortable and interesting for someone when they are tripping.”

Even before the trip begins, it’s important patients feel safe and at ease. Peill leads me into the screening room, colloquially known as the “moon room”, as its round painting has a slight silvery glint. This is where a staff member gets informed consent from the patient (basically, the go-ahead that they’ll partake in the trial). It’s also where they undergo health tests, and at this stage participants feel anything on a spectrum of “excitement to nervousness,” Peill tells me.

Makes sense: The prospect of visual distortions, changing consciousness and hallucinations are enough to make anyone feel a bit on edge. But the past few years have seen a dramatic shift in how society understands psychedelics. Oregon legalised psilocybin for therapeutic use in 2020, sparking similar changes to law in places like Denver, Santa Cruz and, most recently, Colorado. 

This can be put down to a spate of research suggesting psychedelics can help treat certain mental health disorders. The clinic I’m visiting, formally called the CNWL-Imperial Psychopharmacology & Psychedelic Research Clinic (or CIPPres, for short), is an offset of Imperial College’s London’s trailblazing Centre for Psychedelic Research. The centre is the first of its kind in the world, as was set up in 2019 as an extension of a decade’s work by Professor David Nutt, Dr David Erritzoe and Dr Robin Carhart-Harris. 


At the centre, scientists are investigating brain mechanisms and the therapeutic effects of drugs like psilocybin, DMT, LSD, MDMA and ketamine through studies in conditions like OCD, depression, anorexia and fibromyalgia. The clinic was launched in early 2021 with Erritzoe at the forefront. 

With a flourish, Peill unlocks the door to the dosing room and leads me in. This is where the action really happens. In a psilocybin and OCD trial, participants are propped up on a slanted white bed and ingest the drug with therapists on hand. They sit face-to-face with another painting, in which rich gold rings orbit a solid circular centre. Joiner refers to the painting as an “infinity well”, with the loops evoking ripples of water. I gaze up at it and can see how the artwork could help guide a trip but not dictate it: the looping circles seem a symbol of deep, expansive thought, but the steady “centre” stops the painting from being dizzying. Even sober it’s hypnotic.

Close-up of a swirl sculpted artwork.

The "infinity well" painting.

These psilocybin trips last for three to five hours. Little natural light is let in, and a soundtrack of ambient noise is played. Throughout the experience two therapists are present for support, but participants are encouraged to go on their own journey, according to Peill.

“Changing consciousness, hallucinations and visual distortions as well as changes in emotions and connectedness can be quite overwhelming for someone,” he says, “especially if they’re not psychologically prepared for it.” The setting is designed to put patients at ease; a mushroom-shaped lamp cocoons the room in soft, warm lighting.


All patients begin the trip lying on the bed surrounded by several leafy plants. But what happens next is less predictable. While many report mystical or spiritual experiences, others have profound insights about their beliefs and thoughts. Some have emotional breakthroughs: they might cry, experience deep happiness or sadness, or they may even mentally relive past experiences. 

Experiencing heightened connectivity to others, nature and your general surroundings is something that also happens during trials. Cosy lighting, fresh flora and gold paintings wouldn’t be out of place in a bedroom, so before the trip even begins you’re already meant to feel at home. It’s definitely not boring, but it’s not a sensory overload either: there’s plenty that could spark interesting trains of thought during a trip.

I look up, for instance, to see there are 3D gold nuggets sprinkled onto the walls and ceiling. They appear to ‘fleck off’ the main spiral paintings. “What do you think these are?” asks Peill. They look like pebbles to me. “We get a range of responses,” he replies, “but they are actually copies of zoomed-in mushroom spores.”

There’s a vibe to the clinic that can only be described as elemental. The shrubbery, mushroom lamps, and gold spores create a distinctly earthy feel that’s magnified by marble tabletops and pink salt lamps. It reminds me of an argument often made by those who take issue with magic mushrooms being criminalised: “How can a naturally growing fungi be illegal?” 


The clinic’s biophilic design seems to pay homage to where the substance comes from. It reassociates psilocybin with its earthy origins. The message seems to be: “This isn’t some alien party drug, but a natural substance. Let’s work with it.” It seems a bit ironic then, that the clinic’s windows must stay locked in check with NHS guidelines. It looks out to a balcony, but patients are barred access due to the suicide risk it poses to those in an unstable state of mind. 

In the early LSD experiments of the 50s, it wasn’t uncommon for participants to be tested in hospital rooms with fluorescent lighting and no furniture to lie on, which research has shown contributed to negative experiences. In contrast, South American ayahuasca ceremonies often take place in sweeping rainforest landscapes. To me, the clinic's use of nature seems somewhat of a midway point between the two.

In the Amazon, use of psychedelics in these occasions is intrinsically tied to Indigenous shamanic spirituality and ritual. Ceremonies can open and close with prayers, and transformative experienced are explained in reference to the divine. I’m interested if Peill thinks the clinic misses out on anything through not being able to integrate spirituality or ritual into trials.

“We work with what we’ve got,” he shrugs, citing the plants and therapists present, but the clinic is tied by what it can do with the space. There are also boundaries that clinical trials have to obey – unlike group psychedelic ceremonies, the clinic must work around two-to-one sessions, though Peill is hopeful that the central communal room might be used for group therapy one day.

The kitchen area of the CIPPres​​ clinic.

The kitchen area of the CIPPres​​ clinic.

As we walk through into the final room into a small kitchen area, I spot a painting of rich warm red lines interlocking on a small canvas. It’s bold and energised and pops from the colourless wall; a spectacular contrast to the gold spirals of the previous rooms. Joiner later tells me it’s a depiction of the brain on psychedelics. “The underpainting for the painting was taken from a brain scan, which shows the hemisphere, so I split up the different sections which are lit up in different ways,” he says. “The red on top is to show the structures that carry the compounds to the brain, like the blood vessels.”

Despite the clear level of care behind the clinic, setting it up hadn’t been an easy ride. Peill says he definitely felt resistance in securing approval for trials, which he puts this down to the fact staff aren’t taught about psychedelics in the health service.

Some scientists have pushed back against the resurgence of psychedelics in mental health services, citing “inconsistencies, statistical flaws, alternative interpretations [and] conspicuous omissions” in a paper underlying how psilocybin could be used to treat depression. Others warn the “psychedelic renaissance” could lead to dangerous ideas such as psychedelics being seen as some magic cure for mental illness.

Psychedelic treatment is still in its embryonic stage, but Peill says the trials tend to show they induce a more open way of thinking, which helps disrupt rigid thought pattern (it’s also why the patient must return to the clinic for several “integration sessions” to process their trip with a therapist). But even if the trial doesn’t work out, let’s put it this way: The team at St Charles Hospital have created a perfect hospital environment to drop shrooms in.