Remembering landlord’s quirky stewardship of a unique pub
The legendary Mike Mercer has died, aged 81, just two weeks short of five decades at the helm of the Albion Inn, Chester. The city’s longest-serving licensee, he will be fondly remembered locally, nationally and internationally as the most colourful of pub landlords, writes Steve Hobman.
Somewhat old school Mike was occasionally alluded to as “cranky”, perhaps “crusty”, yet regulars and visitors alike loved his idiosyncratic stewardship.
The 1880s Albion sits almost inconspicuously in the shadow of Chester’s Roman wall in Park St. Almost. Tourists glancing across from the ancient ramparts may be a little bemused – “No Hens, No Stags”, “Definitely No Children” and “A Zero Tolerance Pub” declare the chalkboards. There’s a ban on chips too, tied with an assurance of good-quality British food. Once inside, a much photographed sign on the bar takes the proverbial out of the lager. Mike’s little joke.
Mike took on the three-room end-of-terrace local after 12 years’ service as a Merchant Navy radio officer. Back ashore he sold newspaper advertising before, with his first wife, he took up the Albion’s tenancy from Warrington’s Greenall Whitley brewery. For the past 34 years Mike has run it with his devoted second wife Christina, more recently fighting the pandemic blight together.
Those chalkboards apart, the Albion’s claim to fame for decades has been Mike’s passion to commemorate the sacrifices of WW1. There’s a rich collection of Great War memorabilia along with a host of enamel advertising artefacts of the era, the Edwardian scene complete with floral William Morris wallpaper and a gentle ambiance – no music or machines.
The pub has thrived on the theme, not least with the hugely popular Christmas in the Trenches dinners and many music nights featuring soprano Patricia Hammond and Matt Baker on the vintage 1928 Steck pianola. All with generous "trench rations". Food and travel guides have waxed lyrical about the Albion.
Mike and Christina developed deep ties with the WW1 Veterans Association, often taking the ex-servicemen – some more than 100 years old – to Buckingham Palace garden parties and many reunion events. Supporting the War Memorial Trust with fundraising, a highlight for Mike was when he and Christina met trust patron the Duchess of Cornwall at Clarence House two years ago.
There have been several showbiz visitors over the years. When told the Pet Shop Boys were in the bar, Mike confessed he “thought it was the lads who ran the local pet shop”. On a similar rueful note, he also recalled throwing people out after “smelling cannabis’”- it turned out to be the aroma of a tea bag left smouldering on the stove!
Racegoers, hen and stag parties were banned by Mike. Racegoers due to a seminal incident involving an ancient washing mangle he had on display and a woman in a big hat who tried to pull a chap’s tie through the rollers.
Mike believed in good beer, with several listings in the Good Beer Guide down the years. As cellarman, he nursed the early CAMRA beer festivals at the nearby Drill Hall. In 2016, CAMRA Chester & South Clwyd successfully instigated an Asset of Community Value listing to recognise the unique place the pub has in the heart of the Chester community and indeed visitors from further afield.
Suffering badly with a spinal condition, in recent years Mike was forced to leave Christina to oversee the cellar work and bar while head chef Clare Churchill, one of his three daughters, ran the kitchen. He ascribed his complaint to his many early years heaving 36-gallon beer casks, with two deliveries a week.
Throughout his long tenure, Mike sought to firmly champion the traditional British pub. “If the pub disappeared from England’s social life it would be tragic,” he recently declared to me. We will remember him.
This article originally appeared on the CAMRA What's Brewing website page.
A memorial service for Mike is being held at St John's Church, Chester, on Friday November 19 at 3pm, following a private family cremation. Charity donations instead of flowers.