The upper intertidal zone, and salt marshes in particular, have been shown by numerous authors to be effective medium to long-term storage areas for a range of contaminants discharged or transported into the estuarine environment. A detailed understanding of the specific controls on the trapping and storage of contaminants, however, is absent for many estuarine systems. This paper examines heavy metal distribution and accumulation in two contrasting Spartina sp.-dominated macrotidal salt marsh systems – a rapidly prograding, relatively young marsh system at the Vasiere Nord, near the mouth of the Seine estuary, France, and a more mature, less extensive marsh system in the Medway estuary, UK. The spatial distribution of the heavy metals Zn, Cu, Pb, Ni and Co is assessed and compared in both systems via detailed surface sampling and analysis, while the longer-term accumulation of these metals and its temporal variability is compared via analysis of dated sediment cores. Of the two sites studied, the more extensive marsh system at the Vasiere Nord in the Seine estuary shows a clear differentiation of heavy metals across the marsh and fronting mudflat, with highest metal concentrations found in surface sediments from the more elevated, interior marsh areas. At Horrid Hill in the Medway estuary, the spatial distribution of heavy metals in surface sediments is more irregular, and there is no clear relationship between heavy metal concentration and site elevation, with average concentrations similar in the marsh and fronting mudflats. Sediment core data indicate that the more recent near-surface sediments at Horrid Hill are clearly more contaminated than those at greater depth, with most heavy metal contamination confined to the upper 20 cm of the sediment column (with peak metal input in the late 1960s/early 1970s). In contrast, due to extremely rapid sediment accretion at the mouth of the Seine, heavy metal distribution with depth at the Vasiere Nord site is relatively erratic, with metal concentrations showing a general increase with depth. These sediments provide little information on temporal trends in heavy metal loading to the Seine estuary. Overall, heavy metal concentrations at both sites are within typical ranges reported for other industrialised estuaries in NW Europe.