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By hook or by crook - or by the web

Tony Durrant meets a Northumbrian shepherd who is selling his guided walks on the internet

It was during one of his many excursions into the hills and dales of the North that Jon Monks realised the huge gulf in knowledge between country people and country lovers. The former were the people he lived and worked with in his life as a hill shepherd: the latter knew him through his other guise as a keen walker, the townies who explored the hidden paths of Cumbria and Northumberland with him.

“My walking friends were always asking me questions: why is there heather up here and grass below? How are stone walls built? What breed of sheep is that? And so on,” he says, waving his crook towards the hillside that is strewn with the white dots of his 1,200 Scottish blackfaces.

“Most people who walk in the countryside love the place and naturally want to know more about it,” he says, “Being that link between the town and country is my philosophy. My unique selling point, if you like.”

Jon means that in the literal sense. He has packaged his passions in the form of a website that has become a surprise hit, with more than 600 people a day now taking a look at his Shepherd’s Walks. People can log on and buy a quintessentially English experience – information-filled guides to walks around this little part of Northumberland – and they are selling like hot cakes.

A lucky few get the real thing by attending his personally guided walks and are beguiled by the lilting Northumbrian accent of the ruddy-faced 35-year-old as he lopes along, dog at his heels and crook in hand, giving life to the landscape through a shepherd’s eyes. What sets his website apart from the numerous other sites trying to market this beautiful and rugged part of England is that he lives the life for real, rather than being some desk-bound copywriter trying to sell an idea.

“That’s the crux of if,” he says, breaking off to call Jess, his three-year-old Border collie, who is trying to round up a ewe that has appeared. “I do not kid myself that they are looking at my site or buying my guides because of my literary skills. Everyone has a romantic view of a hill shepherd’s life. That is what they want to experience.”

As is typical of so many such men of the land, his modesty does him a disservice. It is the way he puts down his thoughts and observations that makes the site so attractive. Details such as digging through snow drifts to get his children Harry, four and Lois, seven, to the village school or descriptions of the daily toil of lambing provide an insight into a way of life few townies encounter.

As we walk to the brow of Greenleighton Hill, not far from the remote 19th century tied farmhouse where he lives with his wife, Jane,34, we come across one of those everyday details. A ewe, heavy with her unborn lamb, is finding it hard to stand as we approach. With the skill gained from experience, some of it gleaned from herding 80,000 sheep on a station in New South Wales, Jon explains that she is lacking calcium as a result of her pregnancy.

From the top of the hill, one can see why he and Jane fell in love with this area. To the north lie the Simonside Hills, with the Cheviots and the Borders beyond, while in the east the North Sea paints a thin grey line on the horizon.

“As soon as I got here I knew that I wanted to settle,” he says, scanning the rolling landscape and smiling faintly as he recalls Jane’s shock at the emptiness when he first brought her here from her terraced house in Liverpool.

“It is deserted, lovely scenery, with few walkers,” he says,” You can still walk all day here and not see a soul.”

His passion for country walking has been passed on to Jane, a pre-school leader, and they walk as a family.

It is one of the few occasions when she gets him away from sheep and the internet, describing the website as “the other woman in his life”, taking his full attention from 7pm, when Lois and Harry are in bed, into the late hours.

It is a strange love affair for a man who has had no formal computer training. He explains that it started by chance when the landlady of a nearby hotel asked him to write down a few of his favourite walks to sell to her customers.

By the time Jon had finished the painstaking task, she had moved jobs, leaving him standing at the hotel bar clutching three guided walks complete with hand drawn maps.

He decided to sell them himself and looked to the internet for inspiration, creating a very basic website from a DIY package on a second-hand computer bought after borrowing £150. The walks sold, so he researched and wrote some more. At that time, the website was getting a mere six hits a day.

As interest grew, he kept customers up to date through a monthly e-mail newsletter until the whole thing swamped him and it was time to call for professional help. So, in 2000, he and Jane took the plunge to invest £5,500 of their life savings in a data-driven website that would take credit-card orders and keep track of stock.

Within days of the site’s launch, foot and mouth struck. Nobody was walking in the countryside and, to add insult to injury, the family had to stay in quarantine on the farm for five weeks. They weathered the storm, the ministry slaughtermen stayed away and three financial years later they are doubling turnover annually. He puts his growth down to being a one-man business.

“I can react very quickly to demands of the business because I do not have to consult anyone else or have meetings”. He says, “Which is not something I can say when I am shepherding, because even then I have to work with Jess.”