What leads someone to take up such a specialist trade, and how did such a unique shop come to exist on Stoke Newington Church Street? I met up with Gary Bridgewood, Founder and Director of Bridgewood and Neitzert to find out.
‘Dad was a great woodworker – a ‘master builder’. He made everything in the house and could turn his hand to whatever needed doing, plumbing, electrics, everything!’. Brought up in a household of ingenious craftsmen, Gary describes the shed in the garden that he shared with his Dad and his burgeoning engineer brother, ‘the shed was a hive of activity, brimming with Dad’s little pots of paints and varnish, my brother’s lathes and my early attempts at instruments!’.
At school Gary learned violin and as a child wanted to be a musician although his parents weren’t that keen. At 12, he combined his love of making things and his love of music and decided that he wanted to make instruments. He used to listen at night to John Peel, switching to Radio 3 where he heard Palestrina and Guillaume DuFay and was entranced by the harmonies and textures in early music. His adventures into early music then brought Gary into contact with David Munrow the musicologist through whom he began to explore early instruments. In his father’s shed, Gary would try and recreate these instruments by himself.
By now Gary knew he wanted to study instrument making but struggled to find courses. In the days before the internet, he poured over prospectus and contacted courses but could not find anything other than Mittenwald in Germany and Mirecourt in France. Finally, at the age of 16 Gary met Roger Rose the great English Viol maker and showed him some of his homemade attempts at instruments from his Dad’s shed. Gary recalls the meeting, ‘Roger was really encouraging, I must have been very distracted and not listening properly because without my realising, he’d offered me a place at the London College of Furniture’. Not realising that was what he’d been offered, some months later Gary enrolled on an evening course. When he arrived, Roger said ‘where have you been, term started a couple of months ago?’. Gary immediately left school to enrol full time at the college.
The London College of Furniture was an extraordinary place at that time, right in the heart of the East End’s buoyant furniture trade. It had a musical instrument department that taught guitar, early woodwind, early instruments and violin making. The building in which they studied was separate from the rest of the campus on Henriques Street and was a hive of activity 24 hours a day. It had an accommodating caretaker who would allow the students to use the facilities at any hour and Gary describes his cohorts of students as ‘passionate and hardworking’. The diploma was a 2-year course and the higher diploma a further 2 years. It accepted 2 – 4 people per year, there were average 9 people on the course at any one time.
Gary speaks of his teachers and mentors with affection and respect. ‘You could go to any tutor at any time to seek advice’. The tutors included Norman Myall, Stephen Barber, Pat Naismith, William Luff and the maker and historian Ian Harwood. Students studied not only instrument making, but the physics, chemistry of the varnish and wood science. Gary worked extremely hard over these years, balancing his time between the lure of the workshop and shifts at petrol stations across London to pay for his board and lodging. In his last year, this hard graft was rewarded by a job offer with an ex Hill’s restorer.
Fast forward a few years, and Gary got together with Tom Neitzert, the co-owner and co-founder of Bridgewood and Neitzert and fellow student at the London College of Furniture, to set up their own workshop with colleagues Robert Louis Baille and Craig Ryder. This enterprising foursome rented a space above a betting office and furniture maker at Crossways in Dalston. Things were going well for them there until Gary popped up to the tenant in the flat above to ask if he and his visitors could be a bit quieter while he had customers round and was chased out by the owner brandishing a machete! Gary describes his flight into the only locked room in their workshop and his terrified call to the police. It turns out that the ‘visitors’ were also ‘customers’ of sorts and the owner of the building was on the verge of being raided by the police.
Very shortly afterwards the resilient luthiers moved into a warehouse space in Northwold Road owned by a Mr Schwarz. Gary describes his new landlord as ‘very generous to us’. Gary and Tom would fix bits of the building and in return Mr Schwarz would reduce their rent – they had a peaceful and productive five years there before the building was bought out by a managing agent. Suddenly the luthiers found themselves at the mercy of corporate systems. With no warning the agents would undertake works through expensive contractors and demand vast payments from their tenants. Again, a change of scene was required.
By now Robert Louis Baille had set up a workshop in Seville and Craig Ryder a bow making business in Paris. Gary and Tom based on their experiences had decided that it was time to buy their own premises. With little money to their name, their hunt for a new base started. They boldly began putting in ‘ridiculous’ offers on premises that were sometimes a fifth of the asking price and finally got lucky. In what was little short of a miracle they had one of their ridiculous offers accepted on 146 Stoke Newington Church Street and finally moved into the workshop and shop as we know it now 25 years ago. At the beginning Gary and Tom did all the work that was required on the building themselves between 6am – 10am before the shop opened to the public. A labour of love, Gary’s Dad helped out as did their friend Mick White, a wrestler and cabinet maker who made all the beautiful oak fittings that you see when you come into the shop today.
At the start of the business both Gary and Tom did a considerable amount of instrument making and envisioned their repair and restoration work as an enabler of further work making instruments. However, demand for repair and restoration work and the reputation of Bridgewood and Neitzert soon grew to the point where this became the mainstay of their business and they began to recruit upcoming, apprentices and experienced luthiers into the workshop. Gary recognises in his team today, the same hunger and passion for instrument making and repair as he and his fellow students had back in Henriques Street. ‘Wherever we can we like to be able to help young makers and apprentices. There are a few good schemes such as the Rowan Armour-Brown Trust that support young luthiers in internship positions, and we are flexible so that our luthiers can pursue work that supports their growth’. For example, one of the current team also teaches at West Dean College and Gary is currently mentoring a promising young maker from Newark School of violin making who is learning to finesse instruments that are already sounding very good.
It is clear that Gary remembers the start of his journey and is keen to support those starting out in this unique profession. The result is a workshop of committed and gifted craftspeople, operating to exacting standards and working under Gary and Tom’s watchful eyes using both time honoured and innovative techniques. It’s 36 years since the first workshop in Crossways and Bridgewood and Neitzert in Stoke Newington High Street, with its team of craftspeople in the workshop, busy shop with a range of beautiful instruments and a very loyal following amongst musicians is the result of extraordinary skill and dedication.
Next month we’ll meet some of Gary’s protégés and find out more about the day to day restoration work that goes on behind the scenes.