Occurrence and development of channel bars are major components of the morphodynamics of rivers and their relation to river meandering has been much explored through theory and experimentation. However, field and documentary data of characteristics and evolution over timescales from years to several decades are lacking. Four sets of aerial photographs in the period 1984–2007 were used to map and quantify bar numbers and areas in GIS on an active meandering reach. Bar types were classified. Additional temporal resolution was provided by annual ground photography and mapping for 1981–2010. Analysis was extended backward by use of large scale Ordnance Survey maps from 1873 onwards. As expected, point bars are the most common type but ‘free’ bars of several types are major components of bar deposition. Point bars and attached bars are significantly larger in size than mid-channel and side bars. Spatial distribution of bars varies down the reach and over time but is related to channel sinuosity, gradient and mobility and to bend evolution. Different types of bar occur in distinctive channel locations, with point and concave-bend bars in zones of high curvature. Bar activity shows a relation with discharge events and phases and possibly with changing riparian conditions, but superimposed on this is a common sequence of bar evolution from incipient gravel mid-channel bars to full floodplain integration. This life-cycle is identified as 7–9 years on average. No evidence for mobility of free bars within the course is found. The results are compared with bar and bend theory; the bars are forced and conform in general to bend theory but detailed variation relates to geomorphic factors and to autogenic sequences of bends and bars. Mid-channel bars are width induced. Variability of bar occurrence needs to be taken into account in river management and ecological evaluation, including for the EU WFD. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.