The improved empirical understanding of silt facies in Holocene coastal sequences provided by such as diatom, foraminifera, ostracode and testate amoebae analysis, combined with insights from quantitative stratigraphic and hydraulic simulations, has led to an inclusive, integrated model for the palaeogeomorphology, stratigraphy, lithofacies and biofacies of northwest European Holocene coastal lowlands in relation to sea-level behaviour. The model covers two general circumstances and is empirically supported by a range of field studies in the Holocene deposits of a number of British estuaries, particularly, the Severn. Where deposition was continuous over periods of centuries to millennia, and sea level fluctuated about a rising trend, the succession consists of repeated cycles of silt and peat lithofacies and biofacies in which series of transgressive overlaps (submergence sequences) alternate with series of regressive overlaps (emergence sequences) in association with the waxing and waning of tidal creek networks. Environmental and sea-level change are closely coupled, and equilibrium and secular pattern is of the kind represented ideally by a closed limit cycle. In the second circumstance, characteristic of unstable wetland shores and generally affecting smaller areas, coastal erosion ensures that episodes of deposition in the high intertidal zone last no more than a few centuries. The typical response is a series of regressive overlaps (emergence sequence) in erosively based high mudflat and salt-marsh silts that record, commonly as annual banding, exceptionally high deposition rates and a state of strong disequilibrium. Environmental change, including creek development, and sea-level movement are uncoupled. Only if deposition proceeds for a sufficiently long period, so that marshes mature, are equilibrium and close coupling regained. (C) 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.