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James Podger opened Great Grooms in the West Sussex town in October 1993 and set a new standard for smart, well-run country centres with professional dealers and vetted stock. He later opened equally well-regarded centres at Hungerford and Dorking.

However, since the Billingshurst bypass became operational two years ago, the level of sales at Great Grooms dropped drastically, and Mr Podger was losing good dealers.

With no traffic passing the antiques centre and nowhere to relocate, Mr Podger decided to close. He has rehoused his Billingshurst dealers at Great Grooms Hungerford and Hampshires of Dorking, which he purchased earlier this year. But for a while one of the best known dealers at Billingshurst, Nicholas Shaw, the silver specialist, will operate by appointment from the centre prior to opening a shop in Petworth.

A fatal blow to Mr Podger’s attempts to keep the Billingshurst venture alive was the local council’s refusal to allow him proper tourist directional signage. The familiar brown sign could say no more than ‘Great Grooms‘ with no indication of its purpose, in the same way as a sign says simply ‘Sotheby’s’ indicating the presence but not the function of the nearby Summers Place saleroom.

The re-organisation of Sotheby’s West Sussex operation to a mere outlet for garden statuary contributed to the demise of Great Grooms, and Mr Podger also mentioned that the closure of a very good restaurant next door was another contributory, if minor factor to the centre losing its allure.

However, Mr Podger is not downhearted and still has plans to continue his chain of upmarket centres. “I am leaving Great Grooms at the top,” he told the Antiques Trade Gazette last week as he pondered the future of the extensive property, of which he owns the freehold.