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A Sheepish Weekend in Northumberland

Sarah Baxter finds fresh air and farm know-how on a trip to England’s glorious north-east

There’s something evocative about shepherds. Farming in general sounds muddy and mechanical, but shepherding – that’s a different image. It’s days of sunny solitude, strolling down dale, crook in hand; it’s listening to the bleat of happy sheep, with time for thinking wise thoughts. Well, in my head, anyway. So I was a bit disappointed when Jon Monks turned up without crook or collie (Jess had stayed home), wearing not a stitch of tweed.

Although Jon is still a shepherd you’re more likely to find him in purple Gore-Tex these days. Combining his agricultural training and love of the Northumbrian outdoors, he has founded Shepherds Walks, which offers walking guides and guided treks – with a sheepish twist, Head out with Jon and you’ll enjoy a super stroll, and pick up a few sheep identification skills too.

Despite an urban upbringing, Jon always wanted to work on the land. Which I could fully understand as we strode off into the lung-clearingly remote Cheviots. Here, the hills rolled like pillows, a green-russet duvet dipping and folding towards the hazily visible North Sea. There was no sign of human habitation in any direction. Or so I thought. “This would all have looked completely different centuries ago,” Jon explained as we hopped over a stile. “But man has come along and cleared the forest, ploughed the land and put up his walls to create farms.”

The empty fields weren’t just looking naturally comely for my rambling benefit; they were either laying fallow or waiting for the next heft of sheep.

By walking with Jon, I saw an alternative side to the idyllic landscape. Drystone walls were appreciated for difficulty of construction as well as their field-slicing handsomeness; splodges of heather weren’t just pretty spots of colour but an introduction to sheep fodder; the auburn cows became a prop for a biology lesson.

“I once guided an extremely clever microbiologist who saw a field of 40 sheep and asked, ‘is that the farm?,’ Jon told me as we watched the cud-chewing cows. “I said, look as far as you can in every direction- that’s the farm!”

I giggled along at the clever man’s silliness – but until now I hadn’t known how vast farms were either. And it’s the job of the shepherd to patrol all that land, checking everything’s in order – and getting a good workout.

Jon and I hiked for 24 km among the Cheviots, startling buzzards and criss-crossing the English-Scottish border, which dissects these hills. By the end of the day, as the sun was shafting spectacularly on the berry bushes and golden bracket of the College Valley I reckoned I could identify a top-quality black-faced sheep and pronounce ewe (“yow”) like a local.

As we reached the home straight, we passed a small village hall. I looked around – sheep, trees, a solitary farmhouse. Where was the village? It was only the next day that I understood the importance of any kind of community out here.

The Alwinton Border Shepherds Show is the last country show of the season and the biggie of the social calendar. Historically these gatherings were the only times remotely posted workers would get together, where stories were swapped over many ales before shepherds returned to the hills and their flocks. Today 4WDs and mobile phones mean that a shepherd’s lot isn’t quite so isolated, but these events still nestle at the heart of local life.

When I arrived the show was bustling. Stallholders were laying out their whisky and sheepskin rugs; a tractor was being stuffed with balloons – the farming equivalent of guess-how-many-sweets-in-the-jar.

I had come early to visit a small farm further up the valley. Yesterday Jon had taught me Shepherding 101; today burly Jeff gave the practical demonstration, whistling his Northumbrian blackie sheep into order – from the back of a quadbike, dog Jip leaping on and off the back.

His transportation may not have been in keeping with my romantic ideal, but I appreciated Jeff’s efforts as I chomped on a roast blackie bap: delicious. And the perfect accompaniment to the delights of the show – from terrier racing to Cumberland wrestling (be wary of men in white leggings in these parts). I listened to Northumbrian smallpipes (soft bagpipes) and I ambled through the display tents, where entrants in the produce and handicraft categories were on show. As well as the genetically dubious giant vegetables, there were accolades for the ‘best crocheted matinee jacket’ and the ‘best dressed potato.’

Fiercely competitive potato dressing aside, the atmosphere was warm and welcoming. Through the crowds I spotted Jon “Fancy seeing you here,” he said with a grin “I guess you’re a proper shepherd now.”