WHENEVER Mark Robertson drives through Swaledale, he thinks of a story told in his youth, of how a huntsman somehow survived a November night in the open by cutting open the belly of his dead horse and placing his broken leg in the warmth inside to stave off gangrene.

He was rescued the next morning at the bottom of a steep scar, and in gratitude for his survival, he placed a monument on the cliff top from which he and his horse had fallen.

“I have an especial love of Swaledale, with its picnic spots with streams and old mine workings,” wrote Mark following last month’s article about Jane Hatcher’s new book, Timothy Hutton: The Life and Times of a North Yorkshire Gentleman, in which we discover that Timothy’s brother, Sir Matthew, was buried in 1814 beneath a separate obelisk on the top of the dale at Marske.

“In the mid-1930s,” Mark continued, “I was very keen on building dams and fabricating rapids to race sticks down my newly engineered rapids, and so was often brought home wrapped in the car rug, because I had fallen in yet again!

“I think of the story every time we drive from Richmond to Reeth and look again at the monument, which stands out so clearly above the trees – or am I an early victim of fake news?”

No, no, no. There are very many facts, and stones, to suggest the story of Willance’s Leap has at least an element of truth to it.

Robert Willance was a wealthy draper with a business in Finkle Street in Richmond and a house in Frenchgate. He owned lead mining land at Clints, near Marske, where he was hunting on a young horse in November 1606 when a mist arose and a fog descended. He turned for home, but visibility decreased as the light faded, and they were left fumbling in the fog...

Near Whitcliffe Scar, which when not fogbound has spectacular views over the dale, something spooked the horse. It took three enormous bounds, the last of which launched it off the side of the scar and it plunged 212ft to the bottom.

The horse was killed outright, and Robert’s leg was badly broken. Night fell.

He knew no one would find him before daybreak, and he knew he had to keep warm if he was to make it until then.

So he used his hunting knife to slit open the belly of his horse and he placed his damaged limb inside the carcass.

Next morning he was found alive, still half in and half out of the deceased beast, and he was carried home to Frenchgate. Unfortunately, his leg was so badly damaged that it had to be amputated, and it was buried in St Mary’s churchyard at the bottom of his garden.

But he recovered his health, and in 1608 became an alderman.

He was so grateful for his survival that he placed a monument on the spot on Whitcliffe Scar from which his horse had taken its last, remarkable leap. It is also believed that he placed three stones 24ft apart which marked the two huge bounds that the animal made before that last leap.

He had the mason carve a legend on the stones: "1606. Glory be to our merciful God who miraculously preserved me from the danger so great."

The stones have become lost and been replaced on several occasions over the centuries, and the story has been embroidered by each retelling.

Robert died in 1616 ten years after his accident, and he left an estate valued at £1,109 (the Bank of England Inflation Calculator reckons that’d be worth about £300,000 today).

Darlington and Stockton Times:

A fragment of stone on top of Willance's grave is said by some to be part of one of the original inscribed stones that he placed on Whitcliffe Scar, but the wording on the fragment doesn't seem to fit the legend he inscribed on the stones.

Although married to Elizabeth, he left no legitimate children – the will hints at an illegitimate son and daughter, who were left £300 and £100 respectively – and the bulk of his estate was inherited by a nephew.

He also left 20 shillings to be distributed for the next 13 years at Christmas to "poor widows and the aged poor", and a similar sum for "the needy at Winster, Crook and Croft" (Winster seems to be a village in the Peak District). On the day of his funeral, each poor household in Richmond received 12 pennies and every mourner attending was given a penny and dinner.

In death, he was reunited with his leg: he was buried alongside it in St Mary’s churchyard at the foot of his garden.

In 2006, the Civic Society commemorated the 400th anniversary of his leap by placing a silver plaque on his headstone.