This paper reports findings from a study conducted in one community health care trust where 62 members of the district nursing team (grades B-H) were interviewed. An adaptation of the critical incident technique was used to determine factors which contributed or detracted from high quality care for a number of key areas including palliative care. The centrality of knowing the patient and his/her family emerged as an essential antecedent to the provision of high quality palliative care. Factors enabling the formation of positive relationships were given prominence in descriptions of ideal care. Strategies used to achieve this included establishing early contact with the patient and family, ensuring continuity of care, spending time with the patient and providing more than the physical aspects of care. The characteristics described by the community nurses are similar to those advocated in 'new nursing' which identifies the uniqueness of patient needs, and where the nurse-patient relationship is objectified as the vehicle through which therapeutic nursing can be delivered. The link with 'new nursing' emerges at an interesting time for community nurses. The past decade has seen many changes in the way that community nursing services are configured. The work of the district nursing service has been redefined, making the ideals of new nursing, for example holism, less achievable than they were a decade ago. This study reiterates the view that palliative care is one aspect of district nursing work that is universally valued as it lends itself to being an exemplar of excellence in terms of the potential for realizing the ideals of nursing practice. This is of increasing importance in the context of changes that militate against this ideal.