This paper introduces new insights into the hydrochemical functioning of lowland river systems using field-based spectrophotometric and electrode technologies. The streamwater concentrations of nitrogen species and phosphorus fractions were measured at hourly intervals on a continuous basis at two contrasting sites on tributaries of the River Thames – one draining a rural catchment, the River Enborne, and one draining a more urban system, The Cut. The measurements complement those from an existing network of multi-parameter water quality sondes maintained across the Thames catchment and weekly monitoring based on grab samples. The results of the sub-daily monitoring show that streamwater phosphorus concentrations display highly complex dynamics under storm conditions dependent on the antecedent catchment wetness, and that diurnal phosphorus and nitrogen cycles occur under low flow conditions. The diurnal patterns highlight the dominance of sewage inputs in controlling the streamwater phosphorus and nitrogen concentrations at low flows, even at a distance of 7 km from the nearest sewage treatment works in the rural River Enborne. The time of sample collection is important when judging water quality against ecological thresholds or standards. An exhaustion of the supply of phosphorus from diffuse and multiple septic tank sources during storm events was evident and load estimation was not improved by sub-daily monitoring beyond that achieved by daily sampling because of the eventual reduction in the phosphorus mass entering the stream during events. The results highlight the utility of sub-daily water quality measurements and the discussion considers the practicalities and challenges of in situ, sub-daily monitoring.