Virginians are accustomed to living in a historical setting, but few get the chance to live as close to history as Hill Carter Jr., Malcolm Jamieson and Frances Payne Bouknight Tyler.

They are residents of three of Virginia's stateliest mansions -- Shirley, Berkeley Plantation and Sherwood Forest.

Tourists who visit the mansions may think of them as monuments to the past, but the families who live there have come to know them as homes of warmth and tradition.

There's an element of lost privacy in living in an historical house. The first floors at Berkeley, Shirley and Sherwood Forest are open to viewing, while upper floors are family quarters.

Downstairs rooms are used by the families for parties and celebrations, or in the evenings when the houses are closed.

However, not all the tourists get the message.

Jamieson, owner of Berkeley, said he and his wife occasionally have mild pushing matches with people trying to sneak up the stairs, and Helle Carter was once startled by a family coming into her bedroom at Shirley, which has been in her husband's family for generations.

"I was standing in my bedroom, putting on a hat, when a family, poppa, momma and a child, appeared in the mirror from behind me. 'This part of the house is closed,' I told them, and they beat a courteous retreat," she said.

"I think the people who visit homes like Shirley have at least a smattering of couth."

All three houses are on winding Virginia Rte. 5 in Charles City County in the Tidewater area.

Shirley owner Carter is the ninth generation of his family to live on the plantation, where the present mansion was begun in 1723 and finished in 1770.

Carter, 61, shares with Jamieson and Tyler of Sherwood Forest an affection for the home and the land. He did not always have an affection for the visitors who pay admission to see it.

"When I was a small boy, I would hide upstairs during Garden Week tours and shoot paper clips at the ladies in their big picture hats," he said.

Carter, who moved to Shirley from a nearby family home in 1928 and inherited the estate in 1952, often works around the plantation. Visitors have sometimes mistaken him for an employe.

"They ask me what I do around here, and I tell 'em. I say I mow the lawn, cut the wood, help with the repairs . . . and pay the taxes. If they don't catch on by then, I just forget it."

Berkeley, built in 1726, is occupied by Jamieson, 71, and his wife.

Jamieson said his father, who bought Berkeley in 1907, "was a Union Army drummer boy, one of about 140,000 soldiers camped in the area during the Civil War.

"He grew up to be a well-known engineer, and it was his company that had the contract for the concrete base of the Statue of Liberty.

"He bought Berkeley for the timber but he used to laugh and say that he really wanted the apple orchards. He said he'd been chased from orchards in Scotland when he was a boy, and now he could do the chasing himself."

The house originally belonged to the Harrison family that produced a signer of the Declaration of Independence and two presidents, William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison.

"It had passed out of the Harrison family and there were people who used to feed pigs out of one of the broken dining room windows," Jamieson recalled of his early years. "In those days, the bricks were covered with three coats of red barn paint."

As a boy, Jamieson lived at Berkeley in summer, camping out along the James River. He decided early on that he wanted to be a farmer and that he wanted to build Berkeley back to something of the glory it had known.

Armed with a degree in agriculture from Rutgers University and a willingness to work hard, he has pretty well accomplished his goal.

In 1929 the Jamiesons came to live permanently at Berkeley and, in 1938, it was first opened to the public.

"We charged 50 cents," he said, "and I heard someone say it wasn't worth it. That kinda got my ears back and I tried even harder to improve it. w

Sherwood Forest, once the home of President John Tyler, has been occupied by his descendants since he moved into the house in 1845.

The present owner, Harrison Tyler, is John Tyler's grandson.

The home was opened to tourists in 1977 "because we feel it belongs to the American public," Mrs. Tyler said.

Mrs. Tyler has spent much time digging through one of the home's great treasures, a collection of family letters.

"By reading those letters I've come to know the Tylers of the past as well as I know my own children," she said.

The Tylers have a home in Richmond and a summer place on the James River, but Mrs. Tyler calls Sherwood Forest their "central headquarters."

The residents of all three homes feel a historical presence in the dwellings, if not a ghostly presence. Mrs. Tyler described it best: "We've discovered something in the house other than us."