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From herding sheep to guiding walkers

Veronica Heath meets the man behind a thriving website-led business advising walkers of some of the county’s best walks.

When I first knew Jon Monks he was working as a shepherd looking after 1,500 black-faced sheep at Greenleighton farm near Rothbury.

He had already worked in Australia for a year where he looked after 80,000 Merino sheep on a remote farm in New South Wales, and then he had spent time shepherding for Lord Carvarvon.

As well as caring for sheep, Jon had always enjoyed walking. Later, when visiting and subsequently coming to live in Northumberland, he fell in love with our countryside and began to think about setting up a small business, using the internet and taking people on guided walks.

His first venture was arranging several outings for a hotel proprietor’s guests in the Rothbury area. At that time the shortest walks he arranged were two miles and the longest 16, to cater for every level of walker. Jon has two children himself, so he was able to adapt walks to be suitable for children as well as adults. The hotel owner was impressed by his knowledge of the local countryside and its access and encouraged him to write some guides.

These were very successful and Jon then created the Shepherd’s Walks website to sell them. This internet venture was short-listed for the North East Travel and Leisure Award in 2001, and the website began attracting clients from all over the world. Northumbria Tourist Board included Jon in their literature as an exceptional local character and he was chosen as one of the personalities featured in a £200,000 marketing campaign to attract walkers to our region’s country footpaths.

For every stretch of land that Jon’s walks cross, landowners are contacted individually. Environmentally sensitive areas are avoided, and at certain times of the year grouse moor areas are not included in walk routes.

Last year Jon set up his business headquarters in the Kirkharle Courtyard near Kirkwhelpington, where visitors can call in to browse through the full range of Shepherd’s Walks and talk to the knowledgeable staff about the different routes featured in their guides. There is also a good stock here of suitable clothing, equipment and maps for the keen walker.

The Department of Trade and Industry gave the business a welcome large grant, and Jon tells me that they can now arrange guided walks for individuals or groups tailored to their choice.

“We teach people how to use the GPS and digital maps.” Jon told me. “This means enrolling on a one-day course which is a mixture of classroom activity and practical exercises, using GPS with waypoints and routes downloaded from a digital map system.”

Well, of course, I hadn’t a clue what GPS referred to until Jon explained that this small machine, a Global Positioning System, tells you exactly where you are on a walk. It’s a useful tool for mountain rescue teams too.

The Northumberland National Park Authority has worked closely with Shepherd’s Walks in the production of their guides. Rangers from the national park have walked each route and their views have been incorporated into the guides, and as a result of their involvement they have also undertaken restoration work improving signs and stiles.

Jon and his family have now launched Shepherd’s Walks Holidays, which are already proving popular. The holidays offer six days walking on the Hadrian’s Wall Walk, nine days on St Oswald’s Way, two and three days to follow Northumberland Coastal Walk, and other shorter walks suited to all age groups.

These holidays provide a personal service, including being met on arrival at station or airport if needed, and accommodation can be booked along the walk routes in small inns, family run hotels, farmhouse bed and breakfasts and hotels. Dogs are welcome on leads, so I’m off now to hunt out my strong shoes and weatherproof jacket!