The Westphalian (Upper Carboniferous) Coal Measures of the Durham coalfield in NE England were deposited in lower and upper delta plain environments. Distributary channels crossed the plain and were separated by shallow, interdistributary lakes and bays. Detailed observation of three-dimensional (3-D) opencast (surface) mine exposures, in collaboration with subsurface borehole analysis, has revealed the existence of five varieties of channel deposits and two associated overbank facies within the Durham Coal Measures.

Major distributary channels were the major avenues of sediment transport across the Coal Measures plain, were variably sinuous, mostly 1–2 km wide and deposited elongate belts of sand mostly up to 5 km wide. Proximal, major crevasse splay channels formed by the breaching of major channel banks during flood events, were straight, sand-filled and up to 400 m wide. Minor distributary channels formed by the sustained operation of such crevasses, varied from straight to highly sinuous, and deposited ‘shoestring’ sand/mud belts up to a few hundred metres wide. Minor crevasse channels, generally straight and up to 50 m wide, were formed through bank breaching of minor, and in a few cases major, distributaries. Distal feeder channels formed down-palaeocurrent extensions of minor distributaries which supplied interdistributary minor delta subsystems, were generally straight and up to 200 m wide.

Of the two types of channel overbank (levee) deposits recognized, one, comprising thinly interbedded fine-grained sandstone and siltstone/claystone, is mostly, though not exclusively, associated with major distributary channels. The other, consisting of ‘massive’ siltstones with regularly spaced, thin claystone bands, is uniquely developed at the margins of minor distributary channels.

The lower part of the Westphalian A succession in the northern Pennines records a change in the depositional environment upwards from a lower to upper delta plain. Through this transition, major channel deposits show evidence of having evolved from being of dominantly low sinuosity to being more variable in morphology. Channel sedimentation was profoundly influenced by regular, possibly seasonal, variations in flow stage and sediment load.