The Conti GT is a shrine to leather and luxury. We take it to a tunnel underneath the Atlantic
“It’s the first gasoline car that’s ever been down here. Actually, it’s the first car. Definitely the first Bentley,” ponders Teitur Samuelsen, CEO of P/F Eystur-og Sandoyartunlar as we gingerly drive a brand-new Bentley Continental GT into a giant and appallingly dirty hole. “Are you sure it’s going to be OK? It can get pretty rough.”
“Everything is fine,” I mutter back through the walkie-talkie, quietly yet firmly stabbing the lift button on the Conti’s air suspension. “We have raised the suspension and have four-wheel drive. This car is essentially made for this kind of environment.”
I can feel the side-eye through 20ft of clear air and a double-glazed, 70kg car door.
Words: Tom Ford
Photography: Mark Riccioni
Probably because I’m lying. The Continental – in this spec – is a £202k super-sports GT, and I’m crawling it into a very much unfinished subsea tunnel over rocks the size of grapefruits. The Bentley’s red, glossy paintwork slides under the harsh, wildly intermittent lighting like a clot of blood oozing through an artery. I am beginning to regret my overconfidence. Again.
“We’ve paused the blasting for 90 minutes,” replies Teitur, with only the slightest of dubious pauses. “So we need to do whatever you need to do quickly. We just passed under the seabed, by the way. The roundabout is about another three-quarters of a kilometre.”
And, with glorious understatement, we become a submarine. Or, more precisely, a sub-seabed tunneller, currently about a kilometre into a new island-to-island tunnel that connects Eysturoy to Streymoy, two of the larger landmasses in the Faroe Islands, itself a place that appears as a random scatter of geography cast adrift between Denmark and Iceland. A place on the map where, more commonly, here be dragons. Usually, the tunnels would be slathered with asphalt and lighting and very much more… finished. But keen to see the tunnels on this trip, we’ve arranged some privileged access to the 7.1km proto-tunnel (it only runs to just past an as-yet very basic roundabout at the moment) that burrows from Tórshavn on Streymoy towards Eysturoy’s Skálafjørður inlet. It splits in two at a roundabout to connect both sides of the landmass at Rókini in Saltnes and Sjógv at Strendur, cutting the distances travelled from 55km to 17, and knocking nearly an hour off the current transit time. Useful if you’re transporting fresh seafood. It opens in 2020, and there is another tunnel being built to Sandoy (the more southern island), due to open in 2023. What this means is that one, there is a gravel roundabout under the North Atlantic, and two, nobody has ever done a donut around it in a Bentley.
Which is how I came to find myself idly seeing how much I can drift a big AWD GT around a very large subsea basalt pillar before someone tells me off, or I get squashed by one of the enormous drilling rigs that occasionally trundle by, like unused props from Alien. The Conti’s bright white lights sweep across bare rock walls that sweat their displeasure at being forced through the seabed, and the unnaturally aspirated W12 grunts quietly to itself like a dreaming buffalo, wastegates sneezing discreetly with every throttle lift.
It’s horribly filthy, surprisingly warm, and there are several tunnelling specialists preparing shaped charges of explosive about half a mile away, but hey, drifty gravel roundabout. Of course, the roundabout was not, in fact, created exclusively for pointless-but-satisfying stupidity, but to connect these various limbs of the Faroese geographical skeleton. This big tunnelling project seems like overkill, seeing as how the Faroe Islands has a total population of only 50,000. But there’s some weird stuff going on that makes the Faroe Islands possibly the most fascinating infrastructure project in the world.
Live here, and you will never be more than three miles from the ocean in any direction
There are 18 major volcanic islands that make up the Faroes, all with too many consonants, all with views and topography that’s a strange and wonderful mix of high-Scottish and Scandinavian fjord. Live here, and you will never be more than three miles from the ocean in any direction, and the coastline is gouged by the fat, greedy fingers of a relentless sea, made ragged by time and salty determination. But there’s more than meets the eye, and we’ve come to see a small part of what lies beneath. Literally beneath. I’m not being obtuse.
The Faroe Islands, in a somewhat incongruous twist, is implementing a huge civil engineering and rural development project to connect up most of the archipelago and turn the entire set into what has been referred to as a ‘network’ or ‘dispersed’ city. Which just means that with the investment in roads, bridges and monster tunnels, the Faroes creates a “coherent economic and cultural sphere which covers almost 90 per cent of the population”, according to the Faroese government – it basically stops being a series of islands or regions and is counted as one place, with distributed services and a hydra-headed series of ‘centres’. The upshot is that it’s going to have – for its size – one of the most modern and interesting road networks in the world, and there’s even talk of yet another tunnel (this one a giant 20-ish kilometres long, making it the longest subsea tunnel globally) between Sandoy and Suðuroy that would mean that 99 per cent of the Faroes would be connected by roads. It’s an epic project on a relatively small and forgotten little set of islands. With the tunnels completed, the Faroe Islands will be a very traditional-looking set of communities with a supremely modern transport infrastructure underpinning it. A bit like a Bentley Continental: traditional on top, technological below.
To be fair, the trip to get here has not been uneventful. The first leg was simple enough: a 14-hour slog across Europe, dispatched with the quiet billow of that 626bhp W12 and six-and-a-half-grand Naim stereo set to random podcast. We averaged 28.4mpg, and on Germany’s derestricted ’bahn it was as fast and stable and dominant as you could ever wish it to be, even if the winter tyres on this Rubino Red GT topped out just past 160mph and the mpg fell like a dropped rock.
But it’s a point arrogantly proved – if you’ve got a big modern Bentley, then the usual constraints of distance-over-time ease past like oil in a bearing. We then caught a ferry from Hirtshals at the top of Denmark, and crashed through bits of various angry seas, taking in the unforgettable experience of nine-metre waves and the unique ambition of trying to strap myself into a narrow bed using a series of belts. After some 40+ hours of other people’s seasickness, we arrived at 6am in the main port of Tórshavn in the dark, and pottered out of the religiously practical town centre and up into the hills. My first sight of the Faroes proper was on a small mountainside on Streymoy Island, at dawn, just past where the small city peters out in an apparent loss of interest in even the plainest architecture. The violently colourful sunrise looked like a unicorn had thrown up all over the horizon.
We drove around for a while and had a little marvel. This is an amazing, weirdly foreign but familiar place. The main road is well maintained and easy – the Gulf Stream meaning that the Faroes might get a lot of rain, but rarely debilitating amounts of snow – the minor roads narrow, twirly and suspiciously free from barriers. But it feels wild. Views that dominate, the small mountains jutting up through the seascape like the spine of some island-sized leviathan. And then there’s the smell. Or lack of it. A crisp, salty tang that has as much to do with the sea as the lack of industrial excess. Your lungs are scoured and refreshed, and every time I got out of the cosseting womb of the Bentley, I needed at least three slow blinks to arrange thoughts into some sort of order.
Exploration continued for a couple of days, and we visited grass-roofed houses occupied by the same family since the 17th century, and villages that boasted of being the first place where the Vikings made landfall. We ran up and over the mountains on gradually narrowing roads. We fought to a standstill with all four wheels spinning on one icy uphill back road where gnarled, wind-blasted trees canted backwards away from the sea and over the tarmac as if they were shying away from the weather. It was like the foliage was mounting an exceptionally patient ambush, waiting for our grip to fail.
It feels as dense as old oak, as heavy as history. It’s not a car layered thick with flamboyance
We delved into the new tunnels on both sides of the islands, met an endless stream of warm, welcoming and endlessly interested and interesting people. And we wandered all over the islands in a big red Bentley, taking in the views. There are islets and skerries and sea stacks littering the sea. Randomly scattered off the sides of the bigger landmasses like rocky chaff, where the ocean has slowly eaten away at the land like sugar on a tooth, aeons of tireless erosion have left nothing but craggy, rotten stumps. You shoot through single-lane tunnels injected into hills, swoop out onto two-lane carriageways that curl around the hillsides like loving arms. The weather is on the psychotic side of changeable, and you can ascend a hill in fog and descend in bright sunshine. Or hail. Or rain. Or sleet. You cross modern bridges, and five hundred metres later find yourself squeezing the Conti’s warm bulk between a 17th-century church and a grass-roofed house where the favoured method of mowing is to put the smallest sheep in the flock on the roof for a few days.
Bizarrely, the Bentley suits this place. You’d think this would be an ideal venue for some sort of winched 4x4 or lithe little sports car, but the Bentley is at home with an epic backdrop. Where other cars are engineered of malice and painted with pure irritation, the Conti takes a different tack. It’s soft but gently relentless, building speed rather than shocking with it: a catapult of a car, rather than a shotgun blast. This is a car that still happily eats perspective, chomps down on the sightlines. And this Bentley, like a lot of these cars that can’t be pigeonholed neatly, takes time and distance and familiarity to figure out. It’s the difference between a spike of adrenaline and a comforting wash of endorphins. Some cars are created from cobwebs and fashion, lightweighted and hollowed, and they feel strong in the same way that a Tupperware box feels strong. A Bentley is no such thing. It feels as dense as old oak, as heavy as history. It’s not a car layered thick with flamboyance, but it is very much rendered slick with subtlety. Much like the Faroes. This isn’t some intense cityscape, all neon, populous and intense, but a quieter, more considered recipe for awe. The detail is there, the brilliance real – it’s just that the presentation is a slower burn.
It’s a strange place. I stand and look out across another random, hugely heroic view, at one end of an island where a sparse village huddles in the embrace of a tiny bay, and wonder. It wants more tourism, but the uncrowded, wild feel of the place would be spoiled by hordes of coach parties. The villages trace their origins directly to Viking landings, but you access them via some of the newest, most interesting bits of roadway in the world. In fact, it really is like the modern Bentley: resolute in its traditions, keen to modernise, trying very hard to find balance. But after four days on the islands, we board the ferry in a Force 8 gale, looking forward to a 40+ hour voyage and a 20-hour run across Europe all the way back to Lincolnshire, and realise that, sometimes, balancing tradition and the modern world takes time. But the two can find harmony. The Bentley Continental GT proves it every single mile home.