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In the footsteps of a shepherd

Passion is not a word I would readily associate with neither shepherds, nor walking. But if we’re talking Shepherds Walks, or more specifically its creator, Jon Monks, then passion is not so much brimming under the surface as pouring out.

Jon is passionate about everything. It is his enthusiasm for all that he does which has seen him turn his guided walking venture from an aside into a successful, worldwide business.

Jon, who runs the company from a unit at Kirkharle courtyard, offers walks in Northumberland, Cumbria and the Scottish Borders to customers from across the globe.

An indication of his success is the circulation of a monthly newsletter he produces on his Northumberland walks – 8,500.

Shepherds Walks has won many awards, including E-Commerce and Pride of Northumbria, and attracted intensive media coverage, both local and national.

All this is a long way from its humble beginnings.

Jon was living and working as a shepherd at Greenleighton Farm, on the Wallington Estate, when his friends came up for a walking break.

He booked them into accommodation in Rothbury.

While in the hotel, the landlady overheard Jon telling his friends about the area. Impressed by his knowledge she asked if he would like to take out the many walkers who stayed at her place.

A reluctant Jon instead agreed to draw up guided walks, with her hotel as the starting point.

He prepared three, which remain to this day his walks one, two and three.

But when he took them to the hotel, Jon was greeted by a for sale sign – the woman had upped and left.

Jon considered what to do. Eventually he changed the start point and set up a website.

Within three months, the site was mentioned in the Radio Times. This got him thinking. “I drew up a business plan and decided I could make a go of this looking at the land from a shepherd’s perspective which was our selling point.

He began writing more walks and launched the business just as foot and mouth hit. With his life savings invested, Jon was relieved to emerge with his venture intact.

Things then began to happen. He expanded to offer walks in Cumbria and the Borders and set up a new improved website.

Jon started Shepherds Walks merchandise – his range now totals 146 products from DVD’s and videos to clothing and maps – which, alongside other local produce, he sells to customers around the world.

“I started Shepherds Walks six years ago as a hobby and it has kind of grown and grown and grown and it was time to make the step – there was never any option to stop doing Shepherds Walks, it was to do is as a full-time job. We decided last year to make of go of Shepherds Walks.”

He retired from shepherding in May, moved house and bought a unit at Kirkharle in August.

And still the business grows. It caters for complete holiday packages, including transfer to and from Newcastle Airport, arranged accommodation and a walking itinerary as well as children’s fun days and training days.

Next year, Jon has secured a contract with a coaching company to take 300 people out.

In the future, he plans to expand to teach dry stone walling and how to whistle for sheep.

Jon currently employs two people part-time but is looking for another – to allow him to get out and about more.

“I never have a day off unless my wife complains. I live, sleep and eat Shepherds Walks.”

Jon, 36, is married to Jane, 35, and has two children, Lois, seven, and Harry, four.

He was born in St Helens and left school to work on a farm nearby. But he didn’t like it and so went to agricultural college. He went on two placements, the first at a dairy farm and the second at a sheep farm.

After college he returned to the sheep farm, then travelled to Australia where he worked on one of Rupert Murdock’s sheep placements – where there were 80,000 sheep.

He then returned to England working on Lord Caernarvon’s estate at Newbury.

Thirteen years ago, Jon saw a job in Northumberland advertised in the Farmers Weekly.

He moved north, before being headhunted to work at Greenleighton four years later where he shepherded half the farm – 1,500 sheep.

Although Jon has retired from his profession, old habits die hard.

“I miss my shepherding a little bit. I have still got my Border collies, so we are buying some sheep this weekend. We have got a bit of land just near our home, just to keep our hand in. It is a bit of a hobby. I felt a bit of a fraud the last few months when I was not a shepherd.”

When not up to his eyes in Shepherds Walks, Jon spends his spare moments walking – in his other job as co-ordinator of Alnwick Health Walks – which he stared on a part-time basis in June.

In this role he manages the trained volunteers who lead the walks.

“I wanted to try and incorporate what I have learned in the commercial sector into the health walks project. I do the health walks because I believe passionately in the principle.”

He also enjoys walking when he’s not at work.

“I sometimes tally up how much I walk in a week and it is a phenomenal distance. It is the most therapeutic thing to do.”

To find out about Shepherds Walks, visit the website www.shepherdswalks.co.uk