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Flock to the North

Lee Karen Stow wanders through Northumberland’s wild side with a shepherd turned high-tech tour guide.

He caries a rucksack and a GPS navigational device rather than a crook these days. And collies Jess and gyp, usually at his heels as he rounds up sheep from the hills of Northumberland, are languishing at home.

Jon Monks, hill shepherd, has become Jon Monks, walking guide, for Sunday strollers and seasoned trekkers over the ‘land of far horizons’, from the flat woodlands of Kielder Forest and the snake of Hadrian’s Wall, to the barren white-grass ridges of the Cheviot Hills.

His world is a relatively undiscovered corner of Britain, where England meets Scotland, laced with dry stone walling with wild flower meadows. ‘See those sheep, they’re mule crosses,’ he says, pointing to a field. ‘They’re crossed with black-face sheep and a blue-faced Leicester. You get a good, vibrant lamb from them.’ This knowledge is imparted on one of a series of Shepherd’s Walks, taking in rural Northumberland, Cumbria and The Borders.

Each walk has been paced, researched and written by 35-year-old Jon, who has climbed every stile and crossed every trickling burn. He knows where the ‘sod casts’ run, the boundary walls built by layers of soil and stones to shelter livestock in bad weather, and why oilseed rape is planted on the outside of a barley crop (it’s easier to harvest).

Our walk is a two-and-a-half hour leisurely trek around five miles of the Kirkharle Estate, north of Newcastle. We begin John’s new base, a walkers’ shop of mohair socks and Ordnance Survey maps in a converted stone barn at Kirkharle Courtyard.

Kirkharle was the birthplace, in 1716, of the famous landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. There, he honed the garden design skills that he would later employ at Kew and Blenheim Palace.

Today, Kirkharle hosts a gathering of artists crafted ceramics, wood, soap and jewellery.

Born in St Helens and educated at Lancashire College of Agriculture, Jon shepherded here , there and everywhere – including thousands of acres in Australia – before settling for a hill farm in Northumberland 12 years ago. On days off he would walk alone, jotting down his routes and fascinating friends with his local knowledge. Now from Jon’s base people of all abilities, including families, book a guided walk or buy a detailed route – which covers local history, points of interest and a map –and saunters off independently. They can hire a backpack or buggy for toddlers.

My walk is pleasurable, through knee-high grass along an overgrown avenue lined with tall ash trees, their trunks twisted like old rags. We trail by hedges bursting with rosebay willow, past tenant farms built from locally quarried stone, and climb uphill to look on the village of Kirkwhelpington.

On the way back we pass through the historic village of Cambo, where ‘Capability’ Brown was educated and which is now owned by the National Trust.

Back at Kirkharle Courtyard, invigorated and famished, Jon and myself sit in the warmth of the Laundry Court Coffee House and demolish homemade garlic and mushroom quiche, apple and sultana pie with vanilla ice cream and a steaming pot of tea.

‘Northumberland is a barren wilderness,’ says Jon, ‘and hardly anybody knows about it. You feel like a pioneer. It seems ther