THE POTOMAC LOOKS different down in Virginia near where Popes Creek joins the river. More serene, wider of course, tree-fringed and offering vistas that stretch the eye. It must have looked much the same when Thomas Lee, planter, burgess and acting governor of Virginia, built Stratford Hall in the 1720s and Augustine Washington built the house, upriver a bit, where George was born.

Tucked away off the beaten track in Westmoreland County, these two famous plantations are only a little more than a couple of hours from Washington and a nice excursion into the rural countryside. Both afford a glimpse into domestic life in the early 18th century that surprises us 20th-century voyeurs. Drive into the roads that lead to these houses from Rte. 3E and you drive clean out of our era -- not because of the oxen and the costumed employes, but because this land was part of the beginning of America.

The Lees, of course, are as close as we come in this country to aristocracy, and the ancestral home is as impressive in its setting as any English castle. Stratford has had no major changes since 1730. It was occupied until 1822 by members of the Lee family, that remarkable line that produced two signers of the Declaration of Independence and a general of the Armies of the Confederacy. The lineage is all set forth in the reception center through which you pass before entering the house, and it's worth a quick look; the generations do confuse. You may, however, get sidetracked looking at the family christening dress and some of the Lee jewelry, like the mourning locket, in the adjacent cases.

There are only a few actual Lee pieces among the furniture in Stratford, but everything is authentic to the period, 1630-1810. The costumed hostesses, steeped in the Lee genealogy and each wearing a necklace featuring the squirrel so prominent in the Lee coat of arms, are full of wonderful stories about life in the old house.

Surely the most touching is the one about Robert E. Lee, not yet 4, who had to leave home with his mother and younger brothers when his half-brother inherited the house. With the coach waiting in the courtyard to take them to a new home, Robert turned up missing. After an extensive search, the child was discovered crouching in the the nursery, whispering goodbye to the angels embossed against the back of the fireplace. Get down on your knees and look at the angels or you will regret it.

Later, as head of the Confederacy, Lee wrote to his wife inquiring about Stratford and hoping, if it was occupied, that the angels were safe. He needn't have worried, for war (neither the Civil nor the Revolutionary) never came near Stratford. It has been handed down to us just as it was, from the leather buckets filled with sand in case of fire to the grand salon with its sweeping view of the river and the land. A private foundation supervises the property.

Two hundred slaves made all this grand living possible. Following the hostesses around the 18 rooms in the house, you begin to understand something of early American life. Even to this family, so bound up with the founding of the nation, England was still home and the boys were sent back there for their education. Girls were taught the social graces, needlework and nursing. War and politics were kept from the ears of women and confined largely to the gentlemen's retiring room, where the men gathered with muddy boots straight from the stable. The women might well provide music on the harpsichord after dinner, but books were so precious and hard to come by that the library of Stratford has only a few. The price of one, they tell us, could have supported a yeoman for a year.

Portraits of various generations of Lees and the women they married gaze down from all the walls, but just as interesting are the little framed prints outside the gentlemen's retiring room above the north stairway. They are framed covers from 18th-century English seed catalogues and wonderfully colorful. The Lees ordered seeds from the mother country, specifying the month needed, since the order might not arrive for a year.

The dependencies (outbuildings), especially the boys' schoolhouse, are worth seeing, and the huge spreading oak outside the tool storage house is said to be the oldest tree there. The kitchen, separate because of the danger of fire, boasts an intricate old brass still; when the tour is over, visitors receive a glass of cold cider and a ginger cookie. Admission is $2.50 for adults, 75 cents for children six years through high school.

Just down the road you can buy lunch in one of the small buildings hidden away among the trees on the grounds. The menu is limited but splendidly southern. You sit on a screened porch to eat Virginia ham and biscuits or an omelet as the smell of honeysuckle drifts in on every breeze. Afterwards, if you like the ginger cookies, you can buy a package to take home, along with the recipe.

Fences are what you first notice about Wakefield, the Washington birthplace -- stretch-and-riser fences measuring off the fields that run down to the river. Oxen stand placidly under the trees and the new corn is almost knee-high. "No pursuit is more congenial with my nature and gratifications, than that of agriculture," wrote George Washington, four years before he died, and the plantation is a re-creation of the life the first president loved as a boy.

The house is gone, but the National Park Service has built a memorial home to give us an idea of what it must have looked like and a separate kitchen to show how cooking was done in the era. It's all very pastoral, and an orientation film is shown in the reception center to start you off right.

If you bring a picnic, you can eat down by the river and afterwards stroll along the road to watch Smoker and Diamond, the oxen, gee and haw to the voice command of the costumed attendant. But the real tie with the past is the family burial ground at the end of a pretty little allee. George's father, grandfather and great grandfather are all there, along with several others. (George and Martha are buried at Mt. Vernon).

Staring at a lizard sunning himself on the tombstone of Augustine Washington, I scraped acquaintance with a young couple staring silently at the vault. They had ridden a tandem bicycle all the way from Fort Worth to see the historic sites of America, dragging behind them a tiny bicycle trailer with their travel requirements. Their bicycle leaned against the entrance to the burial ground as they bend solemnly, holding their helmets, to study the inscriptions.

They had already toured the rest of the plantation and visited Stratford Hall the day before. I asked them about Stratford, which I had not yet seen.

"It's all there, everything just as it was then," said the young man, and there was just a hint of awe in his tone as he stepped back to adjust his helmet.

The Washingtons and the Lees would certainly be pleased to know they had such visitors.

In my decadent, energy-consuming automobile, I made the trip down to the plantations by way of I95 and Fredericksburg. At the suggestion of the Virginia Tourist Information booth that I visited halfway down, I returned via Rte. 301, crossing the Nice Memorial Bridge into Maryland and then home by this shorter way to Rte. 5 and the Beltway.

The round trip can be made in a day, but the Inn at Montross, seven miles south of Stratford, has recently opened its doors to overnight guests. It was once known as John Minor's Ordinary and was built prior to 1683. Thomas Lee, builder of Stratford, was a frequent visitor there en route home from his duties in Williamsburg. It is not as picturesque at this history suggests, but it is pleasant and serves three meals a day. The tariff is $35 or $40 and the telephone number is (804) 493-9097.