What's the attraction?
For many of us, the coming weekend is the last chance for an extended break until the dark days of December. The August Bank Holiday used to take place at the start of the month, and it still does in Scotland (1 August this year). But in England, Wales and Northern Ireland it became the last Monday of the month in 1965. As public holidays have become our only collective work-free periods, the late summer bank holiday has turned into the last blast of the season, a final hurrah ahead of a no-nonsense mood of getting back to work or to school. Fortunately, there's a wealth of options for enjoying it.
Join the party
In Liverpool on Sunday and Monday, the Mathew Street Music Festival (0151 233 2008; www.mathewstreetfestival.org) is one of Europe's largest free annual music events. There will be bands from more than 30 countries playing, yet this year the emphasis is on Merseyside culture: the majority of performers will be local.
The wacky Shambala Festival in Northamptonshire starts tomorrow and continues until Sunday evening. The exact location is kept a secret until you buy your tickets (online only at www.shambalafestival.org; £119 adults, £29 children). Now in its 11th year, this vibrant event is enormously successful in spite (or perhaps because) of its non-commercial stance. The line-up is revealed only when you arrive. You're promised nine stages of live music, a location with woodland sculpture trails, plus lots of workshops and activities, from debating sessions to poetry competitions and art projects.
Or make for Cumbria where the eighth Solfest takes place at Tarnside Farm near Aspatria from Friday to Sunday. The venue is stunningly picturesque, the acts and entertainments extensive, with this summer's line-up featuring The Saw Doctors and The Stranglers. You can book tickets (£89 adults, £25 children) through 01900 602 122 or at www.solfest.org.uk.
Make a splash
For a nostalgic weekend at the seaside, head to sandy Hope Cove near Kingsbridge in south Devon. The regatta ( www.bit.ly/phbspu) takes place over the three days of the Bank Holiday break – you can join sandcastle-building competitions and treasure hunts and watch magic shows and more.
There's more ocean-side entertainment at the Cardiff Harbour Festival (www.cardiff-festival.com) from Saturday to Monday. See tall ships and listen to sea shanties, while on Sunday the British fish craft championships show off the skills of the nation's best fishmongers.
Newquay offers dramatic spectator sport with the Quiksilver Pro Junior surf fest (www.quiksilverlive.com). From Saturday to Monday, watch the action on Fistral Beach and hear music from The Last Gentlemen and Auction for the Promise Club.
Heritage comes alive
See Kenilworth Castle (01926 852078; www.english-heritage.org.uk) besieged by armour-clad Normans. The ruins of this great medieval fortress in Warwickshire come under attack on Sunday and Monday – from pike-wielding, costumed re-enactors. Beware the trebuchet, a siege machine that hurls heavy stones...
In Dorset, there's more action around the ruins of another castle. See the art of jesting at Corfe Castle (01929 481294; www.nationaltrust.co.uk) including stilt walking and juggling and attend "fools' school" circus skills workshops on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
In Yorkshire, gracious Harewood House (0113 218 1010; www.harewood.org) puts on an extensive family show on Sunday and Monday, with live music, craft stalls, children's trails, dog agility shows and much more.
Full steam ahead
The Shrewsbury Steam Engine and Vintage Vehicle Rally (01743 792731; www.shrewsburysteamrally.co.uk) takes place on Sunday and Monday at Onslow Park. See vehicles great and small (but mostly great) from traction engines, steam rollers and historic buses and lorries to venerable bicycles. Additional entertainments include birds of prey demonstrations and a charming old-fashioned fairground.
Other steam events this weekend are offered at the Rudgwick Steam
and Country Show (www.rudgwicksteamshow.co.uk) on the Surrey-Sussex border between Guildford and Horsham and the Morval Vintage Steam Rally (www.morval-vintage-rally.co.uk) at Bray Farm near Looe in Cornwall.
London offers a wide array of Bank Holiday events. The dance music festival South West Four (www.southwestfour.com) takes its name from the postcode of its location: Clapham Common SW4. Tickets (£45) are available only for Sunday when Pendulum, Annie Mac and Simian Mobile Disco take to the stages. On Sunday and Monday the Alternative Village Fête (www.nationaltheatre.org.uk) is held in the forecourt outside the National Theatre on South Bank. It's a colourful mix of avant-garde artists, craftmakers and alternative produce stalls collectively putting an urban spin on the notion of the traditional village fair. The really big event, though, remains the Notting Hill Carnival on Sunday and Monday of the Bank Holiday break (www.thenottinghillcarnival.com).
Despite the shadow cast by the recent London riots, the show goes on – as it has done since 1966 – with fabulous costumes, food stalls and the air reverberating to the sound of steel bands and sound systems. It will, however, be finishing earlier than usual, at 7pm each evening.
What Google will tell you...
"This summer, Westonbirt, the National Arboretum, is celebrating the UN's International Year of Forests with free admission for kids and a host of activities exploring the hidden life of forests. Families can take part in a programme of exciting activities... finishing with the ultimate celebration of trees at Westonbirt's new Bank Holiday event, Treefest."
So says the Forestry Commission (01666 880220; www. forestry.gov.uk) which is orchestrating a host of activities at Treefest (26-29 August) from woodworking displays and Morris dancing to archery and falconry. Westonbirt Arborteum is three miles south-west of Tetbury, Gloucestershire.
What Google won't tell you... until now
"Last year nearly 12 million Brits planned a trip somewhere in the country over the August Bank Holiday," says Alex Mawer, marketing director of Visit England. He adds there are plenty of adventurous and unusual outdoors activities on offer. "Try Blokarting – a thrilling sport where yachting meets go-karting – on the beaches of Perranporth and Watergate Bay in Cornwall" (www.adventure-cornwall.co.uk). "Or join a bushcraft course in Somerset to learn Bear Grylls-style skills of surviving in the wild" (www.countrylore.co.uk).