In analytical and numerical models of river meandering, initiation of meandering typically occurs uniformly along the streamwise coordinate in the channel. Based on a historical analysis of the Nierskanaal, here we show how and under which circumstances meandering has initiated in isolated sections of a channel. The Nierskanaal was constructed by the end of the 18th century, as a straight channel between the river Niers and the river Meuse. The purpose of this measure was to reduce flood risk in the downstream reaches of the river Niers. The banks on the Dutch part of the channel were left unprotected and developed into a morphodynamically active channel, featuring a meandering planform and valley incision. The planform development and incision process is analysed using topographic maps and airborne LiDAR data. Meandering initiated in three sections of the channel, where the channel sinuosity developed asynchronously. Sedimentary successions in the study area show layers of iron oxide, indicating groundwater seepage from aeolian river dunes and river deposits located nearby. Only at the spots where meandering has initiated iron oxide is found close to the surface level. This provides a clue that seepage triggered bank erosion by increasing moisture content of the banks. The isolated meandering sections expanded in the longitudinal direction. Valley incision has developed in the first decades after the construction of the channel, and diminished after a gravel layer was reached. Gravel was deposited in the downstream half of the channel bed, acting as an armouring layer. The spatial variation in meandering behaviour, as observed in the Nierskanaal, justifies efforts to implement the influence of floodplain heterogeneity and the effect of seepage on bank erosion in meander models. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.