Geographical context is required of many information retrieval tasks in which the target of the search may be documents, images or records which are referenced to geographical space only by means of place names. Often there may be an imprecise match between the query name and the names associated with candidate sources of information. There is a need therefore for geographical information retrieval facilities that can rank the relevance of candidate information with respect to geographical closeness as well as semantic closeness with respect to the topic of interest. Here we present an ontology of place that combines limited coordinate data with qualitative spatial relationships between places. This parsimonious model of place is intended to suppon information retrieval tasks that may be global in scope. The ontology has been implemented with a semantic modelling system linking non-spatial conceptual hierarchies with the place ontology. An hierarchical distance measure is combined with Euclidean distance between place centroids to create a hybrid spatial distance measure. This can be combined with thematic distance, based on classification semantics, to create an integrated semantic closeness measure that can be used for a relevance ranking of retrieved objects.