A new analysis of all 346 published 14C dated Holocene alluvial units in Britain offers a unique insight into the regional impacts of global change and shows how surprisingly sensitive British rivers have been to relatively modest but repeated changes in climate. Fourteen major but probably brief periods of flooding are identified bracketed within the periods 400–1070, 1940–3940, 7520–8100 and at ca. 10 420 cal. yr BP. There is a strong correspondence between climatic deteriorations inferred from mire wet shifts and major periods of flooding, especially at ca. 8000 cal. yr BP and since ca. 4000 cal. yr BP. The unusually long and complete British record also demonstrates that alterations in land cover have resulted in a step change in river basin sensitivity to variations in climate. This has very important implications for assessing and mitigating the impact of increasing severe flooding. In small and medium-sized river basins land use is likely to play a key role in either moderating or amplifying the climatic signal. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.