Abstract Three cores (<9 m long) recovered from late Holocene coastal sand dunes in Northumberland, north-eastern England, were examined stratigraphically and dated by the infrared stimulated luminescence (IRSL) method to the time period between the Medieval Warm Period (MWP; ≈ 900–1200 AD) and Little Ice Age (LIA; ≈ 1550–1800 AD). Grain-size variability and CaCO3 content were determined at 10-mm intervals throughout parts of the cores. The sahara computer program was used to plot the log-hyperbolic distribution (LHD) of grain-size spectra from different stratigraphic levels and estimate the LHD's statistical components. Core samples plot variously in the depositional and erosional domains of the hyperbolic chi (χ) vs. xi (ξ) shape triangle, which describes components of sediment sorting. Depositional and erosional phases, discriminated within the LHD's shape triangle, cannot readily be resolved from core stratigraphies or correlated between cores. IRSL dates from single cores show a clustering about the period 1430–1540. Between the dated horizons, dunes accreted at ≈ 0·02–0·05 m year−1, enabling the timing of excursions in χ and ξ to be estimated. These excursions, which can be resolved to the subannual level between the dated horizons, may be related to deposition by episodic storms or storm surges in the North Sea region, which is supported by historical documentary evidence. This innovative use of the LHD method and its derived statistics can be used successfully to describe temporal trends in coastal depositional environments and identify likely storm events in dune sediment records.