The effect of climate change on biologically mediated soil processes is likely to be complex and difficult to predict. The direct effect of changes in soil moisture and temperature may be obscured or even reversed by changes in the return of organic substrates to the soil. This paper is the first in a series reporting the results from a medium-term investigation into the effect of simulated climate change on soil N mineralization in a seminatural calcareous grassland in southern England. Gross rates of N mineralization were determined by isotope dilution in plots subjected to winter warming (3 °C above ambient), enhanced or decreased summer rainfall and combinations of these treatments. The results from the control treatment, reported here, show a strong seasonality of gross N mineralization with rates highest in the Spring and Autumn and lowest in Summer. They indicate that water availability is the main restraint on microbial processes and plant growth and that, in the short term, enhanced summer rainfall is likely to be the main factor influencing nutrient turnover. Further papers will report the results from the imposed treatments.