Multiple sedimentary units from floodplain reaches at Welshpool on the upper River Severn and at the confluence of the Afon Tanat and Afon Vyrnwy (mid-Wales, UK) were examined to ascertain if they have distinctive particle size characteristics. Changes in particle size characteristics and their possible relationship to known human and climatic impacts are also discussed. Ellipse plots of particle size characteristics from the River Severn floodplain at Welshpool show that coarse-grained outwash deposits can be clearly discriminated from channel margin or palaeochannel sediments. In contrast, at the Afon Tanat-Vyrnwy study reach, this discrimination is not seen so clearly. The relationships between age and particle size characteristics from the most sampled sedimentary environment, palaeochannel infills. were also examined. The data from the River Severn floodplain at Welshpool show that palaeochannel sediments reveal a gradual but clear increase in particle size from the mid- to late Holocene towards the present day. Sediments deposited in the period 90-160 years BP are markedly coarser. It is suggested that these changes may be related to the combined effect of land-use changes, metal mining impacts and changes in flood frequency and magnitude that occurred at this time within the upper Severn basin. In contrast, the particle size characteristics of post Late Devensian/Early Holocene units from Tanat-Vymwy palaeochannels were random with no discernible age-size patterns. It is suggested that the non-systematic grain size distribution may be due to the steeper valley gradients of the Tanat-Vyrnwy system (and by inference higher stream powers) and its relatively narrow valley form enabling more effective coupling between coarser outwash deposits found on and at the edges of hillslopes and the valley Boor. Although the two study reaches have undergone comparable environmental change during the Holocene and lie in the piedmont zone of their catchments, palaeochannel units of the same age possess distinctly different characteristics. Intrinsic reach-scale geomorphic factors would appear to preclude the uniform application of particle size characteristics to determine alluvial response to environmental change. Consequently, care needs to be applied to the use of such data for environmental discrimination because the phenomenon of equifinality means that a specific set of sediment characteristics is not necessarily exclusive to specific fluvial environments in either space or time. Copyright (C) 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.