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Thursday July 19th 2018

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens | 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens: Puzzlewood, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens: the forest of Takodana: Puzzlewood, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire

Luke Skywalker has vanished, the First Order has replaced the Empire and the Resistance is once again striking back.

Dameron Poe (Oscar Isaac) has been given a secret map to the whereabouts of Skywalker, now the last Jedi, but the First Order is hot on its trail in the person of sinister Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

No, that desert planet isn’t Tatooine, it’s Jakku. And it’s no longer Tunisia but the Rub' al Khali (Empty Quarter) desert, near Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates, thanks perhaps to 30% rebates provided by the government to encourage film production. Fast And Furious 7, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and even rival franchise Star Trek Beyond also seem to have found the offer irresistible.

It’s on 'Jakku' too that Finn (John Boyega) deserts the ranks of the Stormtroopers after witnessing a massacre and hooks up with scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), who lives by trading recycled junk for food.

Along with BB-8, the spherical droid who’s carrying a vital section of the sought-after map, Rey and Finn commandeer the rusting, near-abandoned Millennium Falcon, unwittingly finding themselves alongside Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and heading to the lush green planet of 'Takodana' for help from Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) at her multi-cultural, multi-species cantina.

“I didn’t know there was so much green in the whole galaxy!” exclaims Rey as two outstandingly beautiful UK locations replace the barren sands of Abu Dhabi.

The lakes and the shoreline of ‘Takodana’ are just south of Keswick, in Cumbria’s beautiful Lake District.

Here, Rey is mysteriously drawn to the old light sabre that once belonged to Luke Skywalker. They’re inevitably spotted and when Kylo Ren sends forces to re-capture the map, the fight is on.

Stormtroopers attack at the usually peaceful Derwentwater, (where the hills of the Borrowdale Fells have been digitally removed), while the X-wing fighters of the Resistance arrive over Thirlmere, to the south.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens: Puzzlewood, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens: the Resistance Base: Missile Bunkers, Greenham Common, Newbury, Berkshire | Photograph: Wikimedia

The dense, deep-green forest into which Rey flees, and is forced to confront Ren himself, is Puzzlewood, near the town of Coleford about 20 miles west of Gloucester, in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. It’s a maze of pathways winding through 14 acres of gulleys, mossy rocks and the tangled roots of yew trees that supposedly inspired JRR Tolkien when he was creating the landscape of The Lord of the Rings.

Under a dense green canopy, this unique scenery which has the feel of a tropical rainforest, was shaped by scowles (shallow depressions formed by the erosion of caves) and open-cast iron ore mining from Roman times.

There's a regular bus service from Gloucester to Coleford. To find the woods, follow the brown tourist signs from Coleford about a mile south to Perrygrove Road.

The forest has previously been used as a backdrop for TV series including Doctor Who, Merlin and Atlantis, but more recently became the forest into which Jack (Nicholas Hoult), Roderick (Stanley Tucci) and Elmont (Ewan McGregor) venture to find Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) in Bryan Singer's 2013 Jack The Giant Slayer.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens: Lake Windermere, Lake District, Cumbria
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens: the planet 'Takodana': Lake Windermere, Lake District, Cumbria | Photograph: Tadas Zvinklys

The Resistance fighters arrive to save the day, headed by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) – barely recognisable with his new red arm.

The Resistance Base, to which everyone returns, where Finn is reunited with the presumed-dead Dameron, and C-3P0 with the sleep-mode R2-D2, is the old RAF base at Greenham Common on the A339 south of Newbury in Berkshire – this time, those looming mountains were digitally added.

Built in 1942, the air base was used by British and American planes during WWII and the Cold War, but for anyone over the age of 30 in the UK, the words Greenham Common conjure up the Women's Peace Camps which grew up outside the perimeter fence in the early Eighties as a protest against the use of cruise missiles on UK soil.

In 1997, after the base closed, a group of businessman bought the land from the Ministry of Defence, formed the Greenham Common Community Trust and transferred 750 acres to the council. The runway, once the longest in Europe, was broken up and used in the Newbury bypass.

Part of the land is now a public park with a cycle path but, although you can clearly see three of the six huge concrete bunkers used in the film, once the missile silos, they’re securely fenced off.

In another part of the galaxy, you can forget the puny Death Star of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope – the First Order is now perfecting an entire planet as the Starkiller Base.

The snowy mountainous landscapes of the base were filmed in the northeast corner of Iceland, at Krafla Volcano and My'vatn Lake.

Craters, lava fields and caldera (a type of volcanic chamber) dot the landscape, and include the Dimmuborgir rock formations and the massive Dettifoss waterfall which have been seen as ‘Asgard’ in Thor: The Dark World and also in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. Devotees of TV’s Game Of Thrones might recognise the landscape as the territory north of ‘The Wall’.

As with the Death Star, the Starkiller’s weakness must be exploited and the terrifying weapon neutralised by the plucky underdogs of the Resistance (I don’t think the outcome requires a spoiler alert).

With the immediate threat averted, R2-D2 awakens, the whole of the star map can finally be pieced together and Rey sets off, carrying the long-unused light-sabre, in search of the missing Jedi.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens: Skellig Michael, County Kerry, Republic of Ireland
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens: Rey finally discovers Luke Skywalker: Skellig Michael, County Kerry, Republic of Ireland | Photograph: iStockphoto / Raclro

The remote and craggy island on which she searches for Skywalker is Skellig Michael in County Kerry, Republic Of Ireland.

It’s a remote island, an outcrop of rocks in the Atlantic, 13 miles off Ireland's southwest coast. A group of monks built a stone monastery above the island's cliffs in the 7th Century and carved out those precipitous 618 steps leading to the terrace upon which their homes sit.

You can visit Skellig Michael (Sceilg Mhichíl in Gaelic), but you need to be determined. There is no accommodation on the island but, weather permitting, there are regular boat services from Portmagee or Ballinskelligs. You should be aware that, without a handrail or guards, it’s a perilous climb. Watch the safety film for visitors from the Office of Public Works.