BREAKING NEWS: Geography doesn’t have to be about rivers

I’ve had a lot of interest in my project subsequent to my last blog post which has been great – unless you are all just being nice. I’ll take it as the former. With all this attention I was hoping to find a kneeler devoted to Europe for a chance to spontaneously pontificate my political views on the EU referendum. Fortunately for you no such kneeler has been found so instead of economics, bureaucracy and immigration, you will be lectured on culture, geography, and textiles.

On a serious note, don’t mess this up Britain (I’ll refrain from expressing my opinion to prevent this becoming a political debate).

Anyway – back to the Cathedral and my placement, which is understandably more important than the momentous vote tomorrow. On Monday I embarked on the colossal task of documenting all 1460 kneelers of Guildford Cathedral. Thankfully, I had help from a gifted photographer, Miss Rhiannon Black, and after getting into a neat little system, we were able to document 512 and completely exhaust ourselves with a full day’s work. Getting through a substantial number of the collection was rewarding but so too was the interest and delight of those visitors who came to chat with us even though many took joy in telling us how bonkers we were in our attempt to catalogue them all.

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The now regular task of explaining how it has anything to do with geography too commenced after they asked what degree I was doing it for. As much as my dear Grandma and the like refuse to think of geography as anything more than rivers, coasts and rocks and the more cynical of you lot find pleasure in telling me about my colouring set and my ostensible obsession with maps, geography is one of the broadest and inter-disciplinary subjects out there. Geography is quite simply ‘the writing of the earth’ when you dissect it of its Greek origin (geo meaning earth and graphia meaning writing) and human geography broadly is about the recognition of the spatial complexity of life on earth. Geography is about the where and more recently, the why of the where. It is about the concepts of space, place, networks, landscapes, processes and the way everything is played out and connected on the earth’s surface. Quite simply, geography is everywhere.

Guildford Cathedral

There’s geography here (Guildford Cathedral in all its scaffolded glory)

My study is centred around cultural geography – one delineation of human geography. It too intersects with religious studies, philosophy, art, history and heritage; an area of geography which has recently manifested itself as ‘Geohumanities’ – pioneered by the very talented Dr. Harriet Hawkins of Royal Holloway, University of London (big up).

So what has culture got to do with geography? Well since you asked, culture can be thought of as a system of shared meanings and values that are applied to and embedded within both the subjective and objective realms of reality. Culture is a part of everything. Stop and think objectively about the things you value – take Football’s European Championships in France for example. All the emotions, violence, sadness and ecstasy that a ball being kicked into the back of a net makes to a group of people wearing the same colour and from ‘the same place’. Don’t think for a minute I’m belittling it (I too am stressed out at the fact that England only scored 3 goals from 64 shots) but when you think about it, culture is what makes this world meaningful. If culture is everything and geography is everywhere, what isn’t relevant to cultural geography?

In the context of my project then, I am considering the embroidered kneeler as more than just a neutral aesthetic knee comforter. Each kneeler is individualistic in its imagery – chosen with reason and made with meaning as the personification of its creator’s culture and place within society. So after much debate and discussion, the final areas that my project will attempt to address are as follows:

  • To analyse the iconography of the kneelers as artefactual of the mid-20th century culture. This relates to the themes of modernity, gender and the British culture of space exploration to name a few unusual examples.
  • To examine the use of the embroidered imagery and symbolism in geographically ‘placing’ the Cathedral. This will see the analysis of imagery in creating a sacred space dedicated to the Holy Spirit, in placing the Cathedral within the geography of the Church of England and Christianity’s history and in placing it within Guildford, the landscape and the wider community and space.
  • To study the kneelers as representative of the places, people and institutions that founded the Cathedral. Many different areas and sections of society are represented on the kneelers, along with the occupations of those that help build the Cathedral and the professions of the community more broadly. Some kneelers are from as far away as Australia, Gambia and Tanzania – demonstrating how, through people, the Cathedral is connected to different places and institutions.

With 948 kneelers yet to be located and photographed, there is a lot more left of this project – not to mention the analysis, interpretation and historical research of these kneelers to further answer the above questions. Many of the kneelers are being kept safe in Loseley House, the historic manor in the little hamlet of Littleton just outside Guildford – so unfortunately Rhi and I will have to spend a day there. Or two. It’s becoming increasingly apparent that the generation that made these kneelers are sadly no longer with us, rendering the use of interviews and oral history research not possible – connecting this project even more to historical study and the ‘creative leap’ of interpretation (no, I’m not going to ‘make stuff up’).

Loseley House

I suppose there are worst places to have to visit (Loseley House)

For more information on…

Rhiannon Black Photography:

On the Centre of GeoHumanities at Royal Holloway:



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