In August 2004 seven cases of Escherichia coli O157 infection were identified in children on holiday in Cornwall, southwest England, all of whom had stayed at different sites in the area. Isolates from all seven cases were confirmed as E. coli serogroup O157 phage type 21/28. We carried out a case-control study among holidaymakers who visited the beach. A standardised questionnaire was administered by telephone to parents. They were asked where on the beach the children had played, whether they had had contact with the stream that flowed across the beach, and about their use of food outlets and sources of food eaten. Cases were more likely to have played in the stream than controls (OR [1.72- undefined]). The time spent in the stream by cases was twice spent there by controls. Cases and controls were equally exposed to other suspected risk factors. PFGE profiles for all the cases were indistinguishable. Increased numbers of coliforms were found in the stream prior to the outbreak. Cattle were found grazing upstream. We suggest that the vehicle of infection for an outbreak of acute gastrointestinal illness caused by E. coli O157 was a contaminated freshwater stream flowing across a seaside beach. The onset dates were consistent with a point source. Heavy rainfall in the days preceding the outbreak might have lead to faeces from the cattle potentially contaminated by E. coli O157 contaminating the stream, thereby leading to the outbreak. Control measures included fencing off the part of the stream in which children played, and putting up warning signs around the beach.