In regions with seasonal temperate climatic regimes, tree growth is rarely controlled by any single environmental factor. As a consequence, the development of robust palaeoclimate reconstructions has proved challenging. Tree-ring stable carbon isotope ratios (δ13C), however, are controlled primarily by photosynthetic rate, not by net growth. Therefore, at sites where climatic controls on tree-ring growth are not strongly expressed, a robust (isotopic) palaeoclimate signal may still potentially be preserved. This hypothesis was tested using a 160-year record of δ13C measured from the pooled latewood cellulose of six Quercus petraea L. (sessile oak) trees from Allt Lan-las in West Wales, UK. Raw δ13C values were corrected for changes in the isotopic ratio of atmospheric carbon dioxide and for changes in the behaviour of trees due to the increasing availability of atmospheric CO2 since AD 1850. Strong correlations with local summer temperature and sunshine are reported, and also with the Central England Temperature record over the full length of the isotopic chronology (AD 1850–2010) (r = 0.69, P < 0.001). We conclude that tree-ring stable isotopes can be used to extract strong palaeoclimate signals even from oak trees growing in a temperate maritime climate. This demonstrates the potential for extracting robust palaeoclimatic information from the very long and well-replicated oak chronologies which have been developed in western and central Europe primarily for dating rather than palaeoclimatic research purposes. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.