FEW people today have heard of the once famous High Beach Asylum in the heart of Epping Forest - where countless wealthy patients came to be treated during the early 19th century.

Novelist Adam Foulds recently brought the history of the mysterious institution to life in his Man Booker Prize shortlisted work 'The Quickening Maze' about the poet John Clare, who was one of a number of well-known residents there from 1837 to 41.

Guardian reporter Sam Adams, spoke to Mr Foulds, - a former Bancroft's schoolboy - about an institution he describes as being like The Priory of its day for Victorian London's smart set.

The 34-year-old author, who grew up in Mornington Road, Woodford Green on the edge of Epping Forest - said the asylum was not the place of horror of popular imagination, but a progressive institution where early forms of therapy were put into practice.

He said: "Most people think of asylums at that time as being oppressive places where people were locked away, but this place was quite different to that.

"Matthew Allen (who opened the institution in Lippitts Hill, in 1825) was a progressive thinker in his field.

"He had learned his trade at an asylum in York. The High Beach asylum used a kind of treatment that would be more familiar to people today.

"It was a sort of behavioural therapy which encouraged patients to work and socialise."

Patients had to pay for treatment at the asylum, and were generally wealthy, with several coming from London's 'fashionable' set.

Many were given their own keys, and were able to come and go, exploring the forest around them, which inspired some of Clare's writing.

Perhaps the asylum's most glamorous association is with the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, who is thought to have stayed there for a number of weeks while suffering from depression.

The institution was made up of three separate houses, Fairmead, Leopard's (or Lippitts) Hill Lodge and Springfield, with one of the buildings reserved for men, one for women (which was run by Allen's wife) and one for patients with more serious conditions.

When Allen died in the mid 1840s, his wife shared the running of the asylum with another specialist called Dr Forest.

The institution eventually closed in 1850 with Fairmead House being demolished in the 1870s.

Clare is thought to have written the following verse while staying at the asylum.

It read: "I love the Forest and its airy bounds Where friendly Campbell takes his daily rounds I love the breakneck hills - that headlong go And leave me high - and half the world below I love to see the Beech Hill mounting high The brook without a bridge and nearly dry There’s Bucket’s Hill (Buckhurst Hill) - a place of furze and clouds Which evening in a golden blaze enshrouds

For more information about Adam Foulds' work visit: themanbookerprize.com