Little is known about the impact of Late Devensian (Weichselian) aridity on lowland British landscapes, largely because they lack the widespread coversand deposits of the adjacent continent. The concentration of large interformational ice-wedge casts in the upper part of many Devensian fluvial sequences suggests that fluvial activity may have decreased considerably during this time. The development of optically stimulated luminescence (OSL) dating enables this period of ice-wedge cast formation to be constrained for the first time in eastern England, where a marked horizon of ice-wedge casts is found between two distinctive dateable facies associations. Contrasts between this horizon and adjacent sediments show clear changes in environment and fluvial system behaviour in response to changing water supply, in line with palaeontological evidence. In addition to providing chronological control on the period of ice-wedge formation, the study shows good agreement of the radiocarbon and OSL dating techniques during the Middle and Late Devensian, with direct comparison of these techniques beyond 15 000 yr for the first time in Britain. It is suggested that aridity during the Late Devensian forced a significant decrease in fluvial activity compared with preceding and following periods, initiating a system with low peak flows and widespread permafrost development. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.