A COUPLE who died when their car plunged 50ft off a cliff into a fast-flowing and swollen river were discovered by members of their family, it emerged yesterday.

Sheila Elkins, 68, had failed to turn up for work on Friday morning and colleagues contacted her family, who set out to look for her.

They drove the route she and her husband Douglas, 86, had taken from their home in Richmond, North Yorkshire, and came across the scene of the accident at about 3.30pm.

They saw skid marks and a broken signpost by Marske Bridge, on the A6108, and a number plate which had been knocked off the couple's blue Nissan Micra.

Looking over the bridge parapet, they saw a trail of destruction left by the car as it fell, knocking down two trees before it hit the water.

The river was in full spate and they saw the corner of the car's boot sticking out of the water about 200ft downstream.

Firefighters recovered the body of Mrs Elkins, a care worker, an hour later.

Her husband's body was recovered nearly two-and-a-half-miles further downstream, about 24 hours later, after a major search involving a police helicopter and the Swaledale Mountain Rescue Team partnered by dogs.

Mr Elkins was a retired Ministry of Defence official and the couple had no children. They were well known in Richmond. In 2002 Mrs Elkins served as one of the then-mayor Stuart Parsons' consorts.

In 1998, she met the Queen when she was invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace in honour of her many years of work for Richmondshire District Council.

Mr Parsons said yesterday: "It is horrible news. They were a lovely couple. I saw them just the day before and they were both full of the joys of life."

The couple's nephew, retired farmer Peter Eeles, of Brotton-on-Swale, said the car had been found by his wife, Elizabeth, and son, Kevin.

He said the alarm was raised when Mrs Elkins failed to arrive at the Reeth residential home, where she worked, at 8am.

His wife visited the couples' flat and then retraced their route. She saw scrubbing by Marske Bridge which looked like tyre tracks but no sign of the car.

She then went out again with her son and they found the car in the water after spotting the torn-off numberplate.

"It had been extremely bad weather for a few days and the river was in full spate," said Mr Eeles.

"It had washed the car quite far downstream, but Kevin recognised it by the colour and the registration plate."