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Hikers flock to Shepherds Walks

After an overindulgent festive period, January is the time to challenge yourself to a spot of exercise.

And what better way to get fit, while soaking up some of Northumberland’s most glorious scenery, than by taking part in one of Shepherds Walks’ more testing rambles?

Shepherds Walks – the award-winning resource for walking guides for Northumberland, Cumbria and The Scottish Borders – has launched its series of Challenge Walks for 2012.

These are organised walks where ramblers (or runners) make their way through the countryside over varied distances.

Many of the walks start from around 13 miles in length, with a number stretching up to marathon distance, but these are not flat walks, and often they can take you over mountain tops.

The founder of Shepherds Walks, Jon Monks, has been running these challenge walks for a number of years now.

Jon (pictured right) said: “It is amazing how many people are coming along to these events with many of the walks having over 250 participants.

“The atmosphere during these walks is second to none, with all our finishers getting limited edition T-shirts after finishing the challenge.”

This year, Jon has introduced four challenge walks including a 13-mile Cragside challenge which starts and finishes at the National Trust property near Rothbury.

A greater feat is the epic 26-mile linear walk along the Northumberland coast, taking in the most famous section of the Northumberland coastal path.

These walks are complemented by an 18-mile St Cuthbert’s Way challenge which starts in Scotland making its way back over the Border Ridge into England.

The year is then rounded off in September with the 25-mile Kielder challenge walk, which passes around Kielder Reservoir.

Each of the walks enable participants, if they so wish, to raise money for either their own or the event’s official charity.

In 2011 more than £22,000 was raised for the official charities, plus many more pounds by those who raised money for charities close to their hearts.

“We’ve got 2,000 people signed up to take part in the challenge walks,” said Jon. “We organised the Kielder three years ago and we had 70 people taking part – the whole concept has just grown and grown.

“We’ve got walkers coming from all over the country to take part and even from as far afield as Holland.

“We have found a great niche with people who are looking for a quality walking holiday and the feedback we get is really good.

“I think people like the local knowledge and enthusiasm to really make the holiday extra special.”

Shepherds Walks was set up in 1999 by Jon, who at that time was a full-time hill shepherd for the Wallington Estate, near Cambo.

More used to looking after his fluffy flock, he started shepherding people around the hills, rather than sheep.

“My life of walking is not quite as simple as people first think,” he said. “Back in 1999, when I was a hill shepherd in Northumberland I had a strange idea. I was fed up of following poorly written walking guides, so as someone who lived and worked in the countryside, I decided to start creating some walking guides.

“Rather than just your basic route instructions I would look at the landscape from a shepherd’s perspective.

“After creating my first website in the same year and uploading it from my farm cottage – 1,000ft above sea level – Shepherds Walks was born.”

Thirteen years later, Shepherds Walks is now the largest walking provider in North-East England.

No longer is it just Jon, but he has eight people working for the business, including five guides.

Jon still creates and produces walking guides, which can be now downloaded from the website.

Five years ago he set up a walking holiday business, Shepherds Walks Holidays.

The growth of this has exceeded all expectations with both guided and self guided holidays in Northumberland, Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales.

The business has also carved out niches in the training world, both for GPS, Map and Compass and more recently Nordic Walking.

It is managed from Kirkharle Courtyard in a converted farm building that is open to the public.

So does Jon still get out walking in his spare time? You can bet your hiking boots he does!

“The great thing about owning a walking business is you get paid to walk,” he said.

“But saying that I still enjoy walking on my days off.

“It is a real honour to turn your hobby into a business and I often pinch myself when I get up in the morning to see that it is not all a dream.”